People living with criminal records face numerous legal blockades when trying to find housing, gain employment, and access public benefits. Because of this, one of Code for America’s longest running priorities has been record clearance, a process that allows people to expunge that data from the legal system.
The process varies by state, and often isn’t easy. In Vermont, clearing a criminal record requires getting help from an attorney who can parse through the intricacies of expunging and sealing records. Many state residents turn to Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) for help during one of their free expungement clinics. But even with help, expungement is laborious. Attorneys have to copy information from state databases and fill out each petition by hand—or at least they did, until they partnered with Code for BTV.
In 2018, volunteers with the Burlington Brigade chapter worked with VLA to create ExpungeVT, a Chrome extension that scans state databases, collects case information from across counties, and autofills expungement forms that can be edited and printed—meaning petitions are generated 50-80% faster than if attorneys did them by hand. The tool allows VLA to help more people in each clinic, and has spread beyond the clinics to empower other attorneys as well. When ExpungeVT debuted in 2018, the Vermont Crime Information Center processed around 2,500 expungement orders. Two years later, they processed more than 14,700.
We spoke with Micah Mutrux, co-founder of Code for BTV, and Jake Durell, tech lead for Code for BTV, about what it took to get this project off the ground—and where it might go next.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you each got involved with the Brigade Network.
Micah: My first introduction to civic tech was actually 9 years ago with an organization called Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK). In 2011, I attended my first civic hackathon in Hartford, Connecticut, and the following year I brought RHoK to Vermont for the first time. Then, in 2013, Code for America brought RHoK and other similar groups together for the second National Day of Civic Hacking. Within a year, Vermont had its first official brigade (we have two now!), and I’ve been an advocate for Code for America’s mission ever since.
Jake: I had been an attorney in the Burlington area for about ten years, but full-time lawyering wasn’t working for me, so I decided to enroll in a coding boot camp. Nick, the Brigade Captain of Code for BTV, spoke to our class, and I started dropping in at some meet-ups. When the prospect of working on a legal aid project came up, I quickly became more involved. The inability to make the law more accessible was one thing that really frustrated me about being a lawyer, and here were people working on innovative ways to change that.
Did you have any experience working with legal aid or on expungement services before this project?
Micah: Our Brigade had long been interested in legal justice, but until I met Jake at one of our hack nights, we didn’t have the connections we needed to get started. As a practicing attorney, Jake could solidify the Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) connections we were forming. Interestingly, our conversations began by using CourtBot as a model for the type of customized technology that our Brigade could offer—it took several more conversations and a site visit to a free expungement clinic before we identified the gap that ExpungeVT eventually filled.
Jake: While I had worked a lot on state and federal criminal matters, work on expungement or sealing petitions in private practice was rare. These often took a lot of time, with a lot of back and forth digging up records and coordinating with the State’s Attorney—and all of this could be expensive for the client.
What was the most difficult thing about the project? What was the most rewarding?
Micah: As our Brigade’s project delivery lead, I’m most proud of this project as a model of our Brigade values: partner-led discovery, user-centered design, and agile delivery. These practices benefited us at every turn. VLA staff attorney Maireid O’Reilly was an engaged and imaginative partner, and as we listened and explored her organizational priorities, we steered away from hypotheticals and looked at current initiatives, like the expungement clinics, to see how we could support or extend them. Not only did this process help us avoid potential dead-ends, but it also meant that much of the overhead of user research was handled for us. A partner-led project discovery can be challenging. For me, the hardest thing is that ideating around our own projects feels so quick and easy—it’s the instant gratification of “getting started.” But by focusing on an active VLA program from the beginning, setting up user interviews became a matter of simply attending a clinic, looking over shoulders, and asking questions. Once we had a robust feedback loop, delivering a new iteration for each clinic was natural. And that’s exactly the kind of nimble, impactful project that every Brigade member wants to work on.
Jake: For me, the benefits brought to each client’s life are immeasurable and incredibly rewarding. But attorney wellness is also an important subject for me. I have seen great attorneys suffer very tragic setbacks in part because they are spending too much time with the bureaucracy of the practice, and not enough doing what is most meaningful for them and the client. The greatest piece of feedback I received about ExpungeVT was from an attorney who told me that the solution gave them more time to focus on the portion of the petition explaining why the relief is “in the interests of justice”—which is the core substance of the petition. ExpungeVT allows attorneys to volunteer doing something meaningful without getting bogged down with paperwork.
We have done a number of informal training sessions with assistant AGs and other attorneys, and about five formal trainings with the Attorney General’s office (one in person pre-COVID and the rest remote). The first part of the training covers the current state of expungement law and the second part equips the attorneys with the tools needed to apply that law. It’s very rewarding to take an attorney who has never set foot in a criminal court before and get them ready to churn out petitions within hours. I think there is a vast potential pool of attorneys across practice areas who would like to do this sort of easily approachable pro bono work, whether in expungement or other areas of need. The right technologies can help tap into that pool.
How might this project inform expungement work being done by Brigades in other parts of the country? Are there parts that could be repurposed for other court systems?
Micah: ExpungeVT can be used throughout Vermont and I’m confident that both the concept and the code could be used in other states—after it is tailored for other jurisdictions. The first deployment in another state will take some work, but this is something I am passionate about seeing happen. Code for BTV would enthusiastically help other Brigades learn how to identify local partners, acquire the necessary documents, and adapt our code. More generally, ExpungeVT could be a blueprint for creating any type of in-browser webpage parsing and legal document-generating tool. This has great potential for streamlining the kind of laborious, time consuming workflows that slow down so many routine processes.
Jake: Maintaining a state survey of expungement laws might help identify the most closely analogous states for the fastest redeployments. The evolving expungement solutions could then quickly crawl across the US.
What else is Code for BTV working on?
Micah: Code for BTV is currently working on a re-implementation of the famous CourtBot project—many thanks to Code for Tulsa, everyone working on this project, and all the Brigades who are part of CourtBot’s long lineage!
Our newest project team is the VT Social Safety Net Project. They’re working with partner organization VT Connector to make their community service directory more accessible to Vermont residents, organizations, and public sector analysts. The goal is to transform one of Vermont’s largest social service datasets into a format that complies with OpenReferral.org’s Human Service Data Specification, then build tools that help the community access that information.
What would you like other volunteers to learn from your experience?
Micah: Instead of searching for worthy projects, search for worthy partners and let them guide your projects. Start by identifying smart, impactful organizations—inside government and outside it—then do some old-fashioned networking to meet the folks responsible for that impact and help them see the possibilities of working with your Brigade.