Case study: PLSE project

Who are Philly Lawyers for Social Equity?

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) is a non-profit legal aid organization that focuses on helping people overcome the barriers they face as a result of criminal records. PLSE initially contact Code for Philly via email. While working with PLSE, we were able to learn more about legal services in Philadelphia, and start collaborations with other organizations, such as Community Legal Services.

How did we get in contact?

  • April 18th, 2019. One of PLSE’s attorneys reached out via our contact form. They included a thorough description of the problem they faced, and a proposed solution which required technical volunteers.

  • April 21st. Code for Philly’s project co-lead, Michael Chow, responded--affirming the importance of their problem, and how CfP could offer support through a project.

  • April 24th. They, along with Katherine Zuk from PLSE, had a quick phone discussion. Michael completed an intake questionnaire and shared with CfP leadership. The intake questionnaire is used to clearly define product requirements.

  • May 3rd. A description sent by PLSE was used to create their CfP project page, and the #plse-expungement slack channel.

  • June 4th. Katherine presented at a hacknight, as part of a kick-off for their project! Notably, the meeting was attended by Nate Vogel from Community Legal Services, and Pablo Virgo. Nate would go on to create a CLS specific expungement project at CfP, and Pablo would drive PLSE’s project from the technical side.

What problem did their community face?

At the time of contacting CfP, PLSE used an openly available data source on criminal records to expedite the expungement (complete erasure) of these records. Quick access to these records allowed them to complete expungements within a 6-12 month timeframe.

When they contacted Code for Philly, they knew that when the “automatic sealing” of the Clean Slate Law went into effect on July 1st, it would remove their open access to criminal records. Since these documents were needed to draft the legal paperwork necessary for an expungement, losing access to them would increase the effort and time needed to complete this process.

How did the project progress?

Incredibly, Pablo was able to preserve the existing records by July, so PLSE could use them to continue to efficiently expunge them.

However, two side effects arose from the data source restricting access to records:

  1. the dominant tool used to fill out expungement applications in Philly stopped working.

  2. PLSE’s access to future records would be restricted in some cases to paper documents.

With these restrictions in mind, the PLSE expungement project turned its aim to creating a tool their staff could use during expungement clinics, to speed up the manual creation of expungement application. In order to bolster their numbers, Kat and Pablo used Code for Philly’s month long Launchpad event in September, 2019, to recruit and engage new volunteers.

What were challenges the project organizers faced?

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