Michael Hollander was living the dream. He was a software engineer, with a cushy, well-paid job in California, the tech center of America, something he’d worked towards for years. Still, Hollander felt like something fundamental was missing—doing good for the world. He tried to fill the void with a series of volunteer projects, like painting schools, building homes and cleaning neighborhoods. But it wasn’t enough.
So Hollander, now 37, quit his software job to follow another path he’d considered right after college, becoming a public interest lawyer. When he started law school at University of Virginia in 2005, it became clear to him the need for technology in the legal sector, which has been doing things more or less the same way for decades. And, unexpectedly, he found what he was looking for all along: A way to merge his programming skills with service to the community.
After graduating in 2008, Hollander joined Community Legal Services (CLS), a nonprofit that provides low-income Philadelphians with free legal services, where he became particularly interested in finding solutions to workforce reentry for ex-offenders. Since 2002, as the Internet grew and more databases moved online, it became easier for employers to get the arrest records of job applicants. And post 9/11, these background checks had become more common. “People who have never had trouble getting jobs in the past now have an arrest from 10 years ago online that has been keeping them from getting a job,” says Hollander.
When he joined CLS, Hollander helped organize “expungement clinics” through the Criminal Record Expungement Project with community organizations, to help clear criminal records. While the process is easy and favored by current laws, it is still time consuming, with each petition taking about 30 minutes to complete. Here’s how these work: Lawyers scan a client’s criminal record to see what crimes a client was tried for, but not convicted, that can be expunged—such as retail theft and simple assault. They file a petition with the First Judicial District Court; the client has a hearing before a judge; and usually, over 90 percent of non-criminal records are expunged. This can be life-changing for some people, especially if they were unable to attain gainful employment in the past.
In 2010, Hollander debuted his Expungement Generator. He says lawyers have filed between 10,000 and 15,000 expungement petitions using his Generator. This can be life-changing for some people, especially if they were unable to attain gainful employment in the past.
The first clinic Hollander attended, in 2010, was at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in North Philly. “We had an extraordinary number of people come in,” he says. “I was personally assigned the expungement petitions for 60 different people, which was an overwhelming amount of work.” Even with the help of advanced law students from Penn and Temple, it was still too much. “We would do these clinics at night [after work hours] and they took a long time to do,” he says. “It was very overwhelming.”
So what does a former software engineer do? Automate it!
In his spare time, Hollander started prototyping different ways to use a simple computer program to expedite the expungement process. In 2010, he debuted his Expungement Generator, which is now available to legal professionals who are providing free or pro bono services. (Community Legal Services owns the software and has shared the Generator, at no cost, with partner organizations, like Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which Hollander helped to found). The program takes public information from Pennsylvania Court’s online records, evaluates what charges may or may not be expunged based on the criminal docket, then generates a petition for a legal professional to review and file. The simplicity means that even those with a basic legal background, like law students who help at these clinics, can quickly move from client to client.
Between CLS and PLSE, Hollander says lawyers have filed between 10,000 and 15,000 expungement petitions using his Generator.
“The EG allows us to minimize the time consuming tasks of drafting repetitive motions and reinvest that time in strengthening our relationship with our clients,” says Michael Lee, PLSE executive director. “It allows us to empower our law student volunteers from Drexel, Penn, Villanova to produce more legal work product.” Other organizations that have benefited from this program have included the City of Philadelphia Re-Entry office, the Federal Supervision to Aid Re-Entry program and PowerCorpsPHL. And the list is growing.
Hollander would like for his Expungement Generator to become obsolete. This could happen if the state’s proposed Clean Slate bill passes, automatically deleting or sealing one’s record after a certain amount of “redemption time.”
The research and development of the program was made possible by a grant from Skadden Foundation’s Flom Incubator Grant. The Generator has improved the accuracy of expungement petitions, which has made it easier for judges to rule. But it has also increased the work for court staff. The city opened a new courtroom to exclusively deal with criminal record expungements a few years after Hollander released his Generator. Still, instead of waiting 30 days for a hearing, clients now have to wait three to four months.
Ideally, Hollander would like for his Expungement Generator to become obsolete. This could happen if the state’s proposed Clean Slate bill passes, automatically deleting or sealing one’s record after a certain amount of “redemption time”— the period of time that must pass for an ex-offender to most likely become reintegrated with society and less likely to become a repeat offender. (This period of times varies with age and crime, as detailed by professors Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura, in “‘Redemption’ in an Era of Widespread Criminal Background Checks.”)
Similar legislation has been pushed forward with the Criminal History Sealing Bill, Expanding the Fair Criminal Screening Standards Ordinance and the White House’s recent rule on applying Ban the Box to Federal job applicants. “Any move by a major employer to allow people to be evaluated on their merits before evaluating a criminal record is a step in the right direction,” Hollander says.
But Hollander is not ready to take his victory lap just yet. Instead, he’s turned his programming attention to looking at ways to improve wage theft cases. Most wage cases that he comes across are disputes between hourly employees and their employers over how much payment is due, often because of a disagreement about how many hours were actually worked. Google Maps currently uses smartphone location services to create a private chronological map of where someone is at all times. Hollander wants to take that information and run it through a program he creates, in case a client’s memory fails or there is no official work schedule, to determine exactly when the client was at work. This will help determine if an employer has been delinquent in paying an employee.
Hollander could have used his programming skills for something more lucrative or more popular than workforce reentry—like working with a startup or some other form of technology law. Instead, he’s chosen to work with unrecognizable names and unheard voices waiting to prove themselves as professionals and productive members of society again.
And that has proven to be rewarding in a way he never experienced in his former life.
“I feel that I have been privileged in my life,” Hollanders says. “I like to help others that might not have had the same opportunities.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the name of the organization that helped to fund the Generator. It was Skadden Foundation’s Flom Incubator Grant. Also, an earlier version said he works on wage “tax” cases not wage “theft” cases.
Photo Header: Rana Fayez