A New Kind of Expungement App / by Jason Tashea

An expungement app was my gateway drug. In 2014, I developed a public facing, triage web app for my old employer (it's still up!). At the time, this project was exciting and novel. However, research I did earlier this year found that these types of apps don't really accomplish anything. Yes, from a technical perspective they work, but they create limited impact. It's not just my project, others built on this model were also wanting for more expungements.

In the alternative, there is a more impactful model that leverages local court record databases. However, these databases don't exist in every state and, therefore, the model is not replicable. With these limitations in mind, I think there's potential for an expungement app that has greater applicability across states, regardless of court record databases, and improves attorney workflow, a key component of a worthwhile expungement app.

The database model has worked in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Over simplified, this model scrapes a publicly accessible court record database so that the tool and the lawyers can know, in realtime, who can expunge their record and who can't. These tools also auto-populate the appropriate forms to file in court.

Both of these tools do two critical things that have led to their success and impact:

1. It makes determining and filing an expungement easier.

2. It integrates into an existing expungement workflow.

Collectively, these tools have created tens of thousands of expungements. This is an exponential impact over the public facing apps that I've built. As mentioned above, however, this model isn't being replicated widely because a minority of states have the type of database that is needed to build out a project like this. In others, this type of database is not publicly accessible or it is expensive to access. 

In a place like Florida, the law makes it impossible to request criminal record data en masse. You have to do it one case at a time, at a rate of $24 each. This creates too much of a hurdle to replicate the Maryland and Philly database approach. 

So, the question then becomes, do states without a public criminal records database just give up hope of riding the expungement tech wave? I don't think they have to. To that end, I want to propose a model I haven't seen yet, but I think has potential.

The idea is to use OCR (optical character recognition) to read RAP sheets and help determine eligability. This project could be browser or phone based. By either using the camera on a phone or by uploading a pdf to a browser, the machine would read the pertinent data from the RAP sheet, process it through an algorithm that knows the expungement statute, and, if the record is expungeable, then populate the appropriate forms in an editable format.

This project would meet the dual criteria of making an expungement easier to determine and it could easily integrate into an existing workflow. The tool takes the work out of reading someone's RAP sheet and confirming if their record is expungeable. It also obliterates the time it takes to fill out the paperwork. By saving over burdened and underfunded legal aid attorneys significant time, this is an app they will want in their workflow. 

At the beginning of every project, we have to ask ourselves if what we are doing actually makes the end user's life easier. In the case of public facing triage sites, the user drop-off rate indicates that that model isn't value added, but cumbersome to the user. Further, it doesn't add anything to a lawyer's ability to do her job. With these limitation in mind, I think an OCR project is the next evolution of these tools.

What do you think?