A Vermont Code for America brigade, Code for BTV, designed a Google Chrome extension to scrape data from criminal dockets found on the state's legacy court database to autofill expungement and record sealing petitions.
When the Vermont-based civic tech group Code for BTV considered its next project, Jake Durell drew upon his experience as a defense attorney to pitch helping eligible residents purge criminal records.
Code for BTV is one of Code for America's satellite brigades, and Durell's idea fit into a pattern of tech-enabled expungement work that the national group has done in California and elsewhere. As criminal justice reform continues to gain momentum and take hold across the country, many jurisdictions — including California and Vermont — are revising laws related to marijuana so that possession offenses are no longer so entrenched in citizens' records.
A new law in Vermont has expanded the list of expungeable and sealable offenses there, including some instances of forgery, burglary and possession of drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Access to online court records in Vermont can be tricky, however, due to the state having a law that limits it to attorneys and activist organizations, so the first step for Code for BTV was showing officials with the Vermont Judiciary why it qualified for a secure login.
Once the team received access, it took about three months to develop a Google Chrome extension capable of scraping the database for offenses, Durell said. What the group has now created is a system that streamlines the very expungement process that more residents of Vermont are now qualified to use.
“It reads the data, [a lawyer] can verify it, they can edit it and if for some reason a count is not appearing in the system, counts older than 1990 don’t appear there, they can add it manually,” Durell said. “It puts it all into one temporary storage on the computer, it generates petitions and the storage is deleted when you close your browser.”
The plug-in is currently available for download on GitHub, a platform for open source IT solutions, but Durell said he plans to add the solution to the Chrome Web Store in the months ahead. Code for BTV has also been tweaking the program based on feedback from attorneys and legal expungement clinics, which serve as one-stop shops for residents to have petitions drafted, filed and verified by the hosting county’s state’s attorney.
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans said he supports the Code for BTV effort to expediate expungement and records sealing petitions. He also suggested that his county, which is primarily rural with a population of 40,000, should host a clinic.
“I think it really comes down to what’s fair is fair, and if you pay your debt to society you should get full credit for that,” Wygmans told Government Technology. “It shouldn’t be something that lingers and follows you for the rest of your life. With the expungements you’re freeing them up for future opportunities, which would be foreclosed to them otherwise.”
The Code for BTV project has the potential to make good on this, and, in fact, it appears it already is. Wygmans said his office has seen an uptick in processing petitions generated by the plug-in. He said he and his staff verify the information and then he can stipulate most expungements, which removes the offense from the person’s record. The timeframe from filing a petition to an updated, rectified record is about a month.
Wygmans said the browser extension is dependent on how well records are inputted and maintained in the online system, however, which can vary between jurisdictions.
“Here the court has been historically on top of it, but other places have been so overwhelmed that their records aren’t as up to date,” he said. “I anticipate that they’ll probably run into some problems with the use of that tool in some of the courts where they haven’t been able to keep up.”
Durell said Code for BTV designed the plug-in to extract information from the HTML of a common docket, which is why attorneys can also manually add offenses to the petitions.
“I just found the patterns on the docket sheets and made something that tended to work for all of them,” he said. “Sometimes, we get some docket sheets that are just off. It’s a pretty old system that we’re getting this from.”
Durell said the plug-in affords attorneys more time to focus on more important aspects of petitions, such as how the defendant has been rehabilitated and why the expungement or sealing is in the “interest of justice.”
“I hope it’s a good demonstration of technology to enable people to exercise their rights,” Durell said. “With expungement in particular, I hope every attorney who can use this [plug-in] will and I hope that Vermonters will someday soon be able to see their own criminal records online.”