Each month, a small crowd gathers in the classroom at Frederick County’s Workforce Services office.
They are there to increase their opportunities in life, get a leg up in the job market, improve their housing situation.
And clear their records.
The group is there to learn about the legal process of expungement — the removal of a court record from public inspection and, in Maryland, the state’s online court filing system.
The classes are coordinated by Latrice Lewis, project manager for the office’s reentry program, and taught by Alecia Frisby Trout, an attorney at the Frederick Legal Aid office.
They are preparing for — and looking forward to — an influx of interest in the coming months.
Beginning Oct. 1, the number of cases eligible for expungement in Maryland increased drastically.
At a clinic that day in Baltimore, more than 700 people came for advice about newly expungeable cases, said Amy Petkovsek, director of advocacy for training and pro bono for Maryland Legal Aid.
Lewis and Frisby Trout hope the changes to state law will drive more people to their monthly clinic.
“We’re hoping to see a big bump in the future,” Frisby Trout said. “It’s important to know that nothing is automatically expunged. Even if you’re found not guilty, it will still show up.”
Changes in state law
Two changes to state law relating to the expungement of criminal records took effect Oct. 1.
The first revision removes the state’s “subsequent conviction rule,” which prohibited expungement of a previously closed case if the defendant was convicted of a later crime.
The change means that a person with a history of arrests and potentially only a single conviction could publicly erase all cases that didn’t result in a guilty finding.
The second change allows someone to request expungement of convictions that are no longer a crime in Maryland, such as possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, which was decriminalized in 2014.
Maryland’s Second Chance Act of 2015, which allows a defendant to shield certain court records, also took effect in October.
By rule of thumb, most cases for which a person is found guilty are not expungeable. Cases with other outcomes — a dismissal, a “not guilty” verdict, placement on the court’s inactive docket, or a decision not to prosecute — are eligible, and represent a large portion of the overall number of cases opened in Maryland’s district courts each year.
Understanding the impact
Matthew Stubenberg, senior applications specialist for Maryland Legal Aid, developed a website last year that is making it easier to file an expungement petition.
The site, www.mdexpungement.com, works by pulling court records from the Maryland Judiciary’s Case Search and running the information through an algorithm to determine whether the charges are eligible for expungement.
If a case is expungeable, the site can automatically fill out the required paperwork to file in court.
The site has been live since last winter, when it was selectively used by a small group of defense attorneys, but has seen a spike in usage since Oct. 1, Stubenberg said.
In the past two weeks, several hundred expungement forms have been printed.
Stubenberg’s program also serves as a way to quantify expungeable cases in the state.
He looked at the approximately 161,000 criminal cases filed in district court in 2014.
Stubenberg found that the expungeable case rate in Baltimore City is about 72 percent, meaning nearly three of four cases don’t result in a conviction. In Frederick County, the expungeable case rate is about 56 percent.
Stubenberg estimates that more than 100,000 cases last year would be eligible for expungement, yet there were only 33,000 expungement petitions filed across the state — adding to the backlog of records that could be cleared, he said.
“We’re not even tackling the problem. We’re losing ground,” he said. “When you’re dealing with numbers that high, the only real way to deal with it is with some kind of technological advancement.”
Expungements in Frederick
Stubenberg’s work revealed that about 6,500 expungeable cases were filed in Frederick County District Court between September 2010 and July 17, 2015.
The defendants in just about half of those cases — 3,034 people — live in the 21701, 21702, and 21703 ZIP codes, which lie mainly in the city of Frederick.
Right now, Lewis is reaching out to people who came to expungement clinics earlier in the year who weren’t eligible for relief then, but could be under the new laws. She’s also sending fliers to numerous organizations around town to advertise the service.
The worst time to find out about a lurking expungeable case is when you’re applying to an apartment or job, Lewis said.
“Anyone that’s had any kind of brush with the law or they’re not sure what’s on their record, it may be important to come to that workshop,” she said.
Petkovsek said Legal Aid is looking for attorneys across the state willing to donate time to help clients with expungement.
“The time that it takes a lawyer to do an expungement is very small,” she said. “Especially compared to the extreme impact that it has on a client’s life and the opportunities that it opens up for them.”