SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Padjen has been sober for nine years. But until last week, his past continued to be an obstacle to moving forward to new opportunities in his life.
“I don’t want to make a blanket statement on it. But mostly, every time I tried to pursue an opportunity to better myself, some kind of friction was caused by my past. Sometimes I was able to work through it, sometimes it was shut down and I just had to accept that,” he said.
Padjen approached Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill several months ago to see what could be done about having his records expunged. Last week, a reduction of Padjen’s convictions were finalized. Now, when Padjen walks down the aisle in two weeks to be married, it will be as man who no longer has to pay for his past mistakes.
“What this has created for me is hope. It has created the ability to pursue all that I am passionate about,” he said. “Mostly, the fear of my family having less opportunity in their lives due to be my past has been removed.”
On Tuesday, Gill announced that more than 12,300 people like Padjen — who have criminal convictions in nearly 14,000 cases in Utah — will be getting their convictions reduced.
Two motions were jointly signed Tuesday by Gill and Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake County Legal Defender Association. One motion will reduce the convictions in more than 7,600 cases by one step — meaning a conviction of a class B misdemeanor will become a lesser class C misdemeanor. The second motion will reduce the convictions in more than 6,200 cases by two steps — meaning a third-degree felony will be reduced to a class B misdemeanor, and a class A misdemeanor will become a class C misdemeanor.
By reducing those convictions, many people will become eligible, or be very close to eligibility, for having their criminal cases expunged.
The goal, Gill said, is to help those who have already paid their debts to society get back on their feet rather than continue to suffer collateral damage for years after they have served their sentences.
“Our notion of criminal justice is based on the idea that if you did something wrong and you pay your debt to society, that we welcome you back as a member of our community,” he said.
“If you have a scarlet letter that has been put on your chest with that conviction, people carry both huge collateral consequences for many years unnecessarily, which impacts their ability to get a job. And it can have consequences of poverty and intergenerational poverty, loss of economic support to family members and the next generation.”
Earlier this year, the automatic expungement bill was signed into law in Utah. Expungement of a person’s criminal record has traditionally been a lengthy, expensive and often confusing process. The new law, which goes into effect in 2020, now automates that process.
People convicted of low-level class C misdemeanor crimes can have their records expunged if they have no new arrests after five years, or after six years for class B misdemeanors, and seven years for people convicted of a class A misdemeanor drug possession charge. People convicted of a violent crime, DUI, sexual battery, lewdness or any person-on-person crimes are not eligible.
Gill said he used the same criteria when determining whom to give reductions to.
His office identified nearly 100,000 cases from 2015 dating back to 1997 — the first year criminal charges were electronically filed — that might be eligible for a conviction reduction. Gill said only low-level drug possession cases or property crimes were considered.
From there, his team spent five to six months reviewing those records. To be eligible for a two-step reduction, Gill said his office reviewed each person’s record individually to make sure they had no new convictions in at least the past five years.
Each person getting a conviction reduction on Tuesday has already served their sentence, but many continue to struggle for years, Gill said.
“There’s a huge social stigma that people carry,” he said, adding that a prior conviction “becomes an incredible barrier.”
“Now we have to eliminate those barriers because we know that education, employment, housing, those are the things that you need to thrive,” Gill said.
People with criminal drug convictions often find it harder to gain employment or certain licensing that would help them find a job or housing loans. And Gill said employment is the “single biggest essential component” in reducing recidivism.
In order to have criminal justice reform, Gill said, those who are trying to get back on their feet shouldn’t have continuous collateral barriers.
“All of these individuals have paid their debts to society. And many of them don’t even know that they have the possibility of expungement available to them, let alone to have lesser convictions on them,” he said.
Gill said part or the problem is that health problems, such as drug addiction and mental illness, became criminalized. Today, he said, the attitude of how to deal with drug addiction has changed due to research and data.
“We made the mistake in the ’90s of criminalizing all of these events, mostly drug addiction. And it was a mistake that we made that we paid for. We put a lot of people in prison, spent a lot of taxpayer dollars. People came out of prison without a job, without a place to live, without educational opportunities. And today it’s just a different world. I applaud the D.A.’s office for doing this. This is a very good step for a lot of people,” Mauro said.
In Padjen’s case, he said he became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a young adult. At first, the substances were used as a way to give him confidence and relief from negative feelings. But soon, he said he became dependent on the drugs and all the fears he had previously returned “tenfold.”
Padjen said he is grateful for the tough love of the criminal justice system for getting him sober. After he served his time, he worked to turn his life around. He resumed his education, working to become a licensed therapist and opening his own business to help others like himself.
But when applying for loans or trying to further his education, he believed that his criminal past and the stigma that went with it was always going to be an issue.
“I found out very quickly that my past would be an obstacle to opportunity,” he said. “Throughout all of this, I stayed humble and understood that I had created the limitations and it was nobody else’s fault. I accept each missed opportunity and limitation with grace.”
When his convictions were reduced, many of Padjen’s cases became eligible for expungement. Now, he said he actually feels like he belongs in his community without having to carry around feelings of guilt and shame.
“I feel like a freedom has been given to me that I lacked for a lot of years,” he said.
A judge was expected to sign the motions filed Tuesday. The names of those people who will have their convictions reduced will then be posted on the district attorney’s website.
Gill said it is something his office didn’t have to do. “But it was the right thing to do for this group of Individuals who no longer pose a threat and who otherwise have taken steps in a positive way.”
He said his office is now exploring the idea of looking back at people convicted between 1983 and 1997 to determine whether any of those people are eligible for a conviction reduction. Gill said it was during the early 1980s that stiffer drug laws were passed, such as raising a simple drug possession charge from a class B misdemeanor to a third-degree felony.