SALT LAKE CITY — Kaemi Bruno would like to find a line of work that allows her to tap into her artistic side, potentially in floral design or photography.
Bruno, 32, has long worked in restaurants. But when she has applied for other sorts of jobs, she has found that a remnant from a former life spoiled her chances of getting hired.
She pleaded guilty to felony drug possession in 2008. But that was before she moved on from substance abuse, checked off probation requirements like community service and counseling, and had the three kids she and her husband are raising in the Salt Lake Valley.
Now 10 years sober, Bruno was one of several in Salt Lake County who began the process to seal their convictions Wednesday in Utah’s first virtual expungement clinic. The event comes as the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the May start date for a state law granting automatic expungements for low-level crimes.
Dozens of attorneys working at no cost manned phones and wrote emails to those seeking help at the Wednesday event, helping those like Bruno navigate their first steps or arrange to make their case in court.
A conviction can hinder a person’s chances of obtaining jobs, housing or a college degree even long after serving out a sentence. But expunging the record can be expensive and lengthy, requiring several rounds of paperwork and ultimately the approval of a judge.
The remote legal clinic is a recognition that many in Utah may be out of work and hunting for a new job or place to live, but a background check will harm their odds of success, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
“As the courts are trying to adjust to the pandemic, obviously people’s lives can’t be put on hold,” Gill said. “That’s why from a reform perspective, this is so important.”
The virus sped up the timeline on a plan to move the legal clinics online and make them as efficient as possible, said Jojo Liu, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives.
“We don’t want this to be a flash in the pan where there’s no sustainability,” she said.
Earlier clinics held in person in recent years have been busy, demonstrating the need for continued events, Liu said. Her office dipped into a second $200,000 federal grant to cover the $65 application fee charged by the Utah Department of Public Safety, sparing Bruno and others the cost.
When the computer programs to support Utah’s clean-slate law are up and running, many will have nonviolent misdemeanor cases automatically sealed within five to seven years. But the need for the clinics will remain, Liu said, noting those facing more serious charges must continue to petition to make them private.
Bruno lost her restaurant job as the coronavirus cut into business, but said she has retained other part-time work. She signed up for the expungement clinic online after coming across a recent post about it on Facebook.
Now she is optimistic that with a sealed criminal record, she will find a job that will allow her to retire someday and to not worry about covering the cost of insurance for her children.
“I’m just happy,” she said after learning she would qualify for the legal and financial help. “I’m just ready for this ball and chain to get removed so I can move on.”
The process to clear her record could take several months, but that does not bother her. She’s already gone more than a decade with the case hanging over her head, she said.
In the past, after she took the initiative to bring up the criminal charge, employers either turned her down or never called back. When she waited for a background check to turn up her conviction, she said she was told after several days on the job she could no longer work there.
“I’m just glad that there’s something that can help or fix the past a little bit,” she said.
While Utah’s court system has slowed down amid the outbreak and mainly focused on cases for those jailed ahead of trial, judges can handle expungement cases via court filings or in remote hearings, said courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah.
Melinda Dee, the defense lawyer who helped Bruno over email and by phone, said the one-stop shop allowed clients to get answers to their questions and file paperwork in a single day instead of calling various agencies in search of guidance.
“It is a complicated process, and sometimes people just need a little bit of help to walk them through it,” she said.