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Former offenders could apply for state-funded scholarship under proposed bill

Time to “hit reset button” for former offenders’ higher education pursuits, Sen. Todd Weiler says

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Students with criminal records could apply for the state-funded New Century scholarship programs under a bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.

SB162, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, would remove the prohibition that says students with criminal records, with the exception of misdemeanor traffic citations, are ineligible to apply.

“I believe firmly that we ought to hit the reset button. They ought to have a second chance and be able to utilize maybe the lessons that they learned about their life while they were incarcerated. I think this bill is a small step in that direction.” — Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, on SB162

Weiler said he learned a lot during the Legislature’s process of relocating the state prison, which included that 97% of people who are incarcerated will eventually be released and return to their communities.

What do Utahns want that to look like when they’re released? he said.

“Do we want them to be angry and mad or do we want them to be rehabilitated and trying to become taxpaying citizens, fathers and mothers to their children and part of our society?” Weiler said.

If someone makes a mistake, is sentenced to prison and is released after serving their time, “I believe firmly that we ought to hit the reset button. They ought to have a second chance and be able to utilize maybe the lessons that they that learned about their life while they were incarcerated. I think this bill is a small step in that direction,” Weiler said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he supports SB162 but he questioned its reach since most applicants for state-funded scholarship programs are high school seniors. If they have criminal convictions that were adjudicated in juvenile courts, those records would be sealed, and they would otherwise apply for the scholarships.

Hillyard questioned how many people had been unable to apply for the scholarships due to criminal convictions.

Weiler said he did not know but he was aware that the Utah State Board of Regents supported the bill. The legislation is yet another way to support justice reinvestment initiatives lawmakers have adopted in recent years, he said.

The scholarship program’s other requirements are unchanged by SB162.

The New Century scholarship was created in 1999 as a governor’s initiative to encourage students to accelerate their education by earning an associate degree while in high school, according to the UtahFutures website.

In 2006, an option to complete a specified math and science curriculum was added for those pursuing a degree in a science, engineering or math-related field.

Although the bill’s language says it would also amend the restriction on the Regents’ Scholarship, the Utah System of Higher Education’s latest eligibility criteria for that scholarship has no specific prohibition regarding applicants with criminal convictions other than traffic citations.

The bill moves to the Utah Senate for its consideration.