(Photo by Flickr user davelevine, used under a Creative Commons license)
Every Wednesday, there’s a line out the door at the public defender’s office in Baltimore City. The dozens of people queued up are looking to make a run-in with the legal system disappear from public view.
For many people who were accused — but never convicted — in a legal case, this process is perfectly legitimate. That’s because after three years have passed, the legal system allows for expungement, or removal of the charge from the public record. The process can help people who never committed crimes pass background checks for jobs and housing, but it’s not as accessible as it could be.
There’s many legal advocacy groups looking to fix that. Within the tech community, efforts like ExpungeMaryland (which we covered in July) have looked to get the word about expungement. One lawyer also sees an opportunity to make the entire process less cumbersome. Matthew Stubenberg is looking to make it easier for people once they get to the public defender’s door.
Stubenberg, who works as a senior applications specialist at Maryland Legal Aid and also developed the Not Guilty app, says there are about 130,000 rulings that could be expungeable in Maryland ever year.
"It's just a quicker process."
“Right now my goal is to try to make serious dent in that number,” Stubenberg said.
While studying at the University of Maryland School of Law, Stubenberg picked up a lot of knowledge in expungements.
After seeing the process firsthand, he realized it was very black and white in two ways.
For one, he learned that, in legal terms, a case is either expungeable, or it isn’t. “There’s very little gray area,” he said.
The process of getting an expungement petition down on paper in black and white, however, has more hurdles.
A trip to the public defender’s office makes that easy to see. A few weeks ago, there was one person at the office handling expungements, and people had to fill out their forms by hand. Sometimes, penmanship can be unclear, and other inconsistencies can emerge.
“In my mind accuracy was always questionable when you have to fill out that many forms that quickly,” Stubenberg said.
To address the two problematic realities, he drew on programming experience to create Maryland Expungement, a website that determines whether a case is expungeable, and allows forms to be filled out online.
The program pulls a person’s records from the state’s Case Search website. Then, it uses an algorithm to determine whether the case is expungeable, or not. If it’s determined to be expungeable, the program then fills out the necessary forms. All that’s left for humans to do at the end is print out the form, and sign on the dotted line.
While he wants to expand the service eventually, Stubenberg is offering it as a free service for now to the public defender’s office and nonprofit organizations like the Maryland Legal Services Corporation and the Homeless Persons Representation Project.
So far, no one who’s used the program has turned it away, Stubenberg said.
“It’s just a quicker process,” said Mary-Denise Davis, chief attorney with the Officer of the Public Defender. “It makes the forms a lot easier to provide. It’s taking out that human need of sitting down and filling out the forms.”