- A sample of the program
In its ongoing efforts to reform the state's criminal justice system, Vermont owes a debt to the civic hackers at Code for BTV.
Since 2018, volunteer attorneys at expungement clinics have used an internet browser extension created by the group. It allows them to cut nearly an hour of work from the process of preparing legal petitions to erase certain qualifying misdemeanors and felony convictions from an individual's criminal record. Those black marks often get in the way of rehabilitation.
"In many cases, we're talking about people getting jobs, getting better jobs, getting access to social services," said Micah Mutrux, the cofounder of Code for BTV and one of the project leaders. "And if we can help the attorneys do that twice as fast or more, that's really important."
The software took a combined 30 weeks of work for about five coders to create, according to Mutrux. They've worked out some kinks and had to update it recently after the Vermont Judiciary switched to a new case management system.
The software allows an attorney to hit a button on a web page and "parse" the relevant information from it — such as criminal history records in the state database and the name and address of the petitioner. That info auto-populates the legal petitions. Before they had the browser extension, attorneys had to enter that information manually, said Mairead O'Reilly, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, which helps put on the expungement clinics. She recalled the first time she used the tool with a client.
"I could actually talk to her and hear more about what was bringing her in, and what her life was like, and what she was hoping to get from this," O'Reilly said. "Which I think was also able to enhance the petition we were drafting for the court."
In 2018, Vermont's criminal records repository expunged or sealed about 2,500 records. In 2020, that number jumped to nearly 15,000 — due in part to the speed with which attorneys can fill out the expungement petitions, O'Reilly said.
Mutrux said the team is thrilled by the results. Another remote clinic is scheduled for March 5.
"This is our favorite way to approach projects: finding a partner who is a rock star in some area of social justice, identifying a way we can help them do their work even better, and then developing whatever technology will help them get there," he said.