Three years after the Utah Legislature passed a "Clean Slate" law, many will now start to see minor criminal offenses expunged from their records automatically.
Amy Daeschel, with Utah Naloxone, recalled the long process she faced while trying to re-enter society after minor drug offenses.
A piece of paper — one’s criminal record — doesn’t show “the individual getting up at 5:30 a.m. every morning,” traveling to make it on time to treatment, or accepting a $9/hour job “because that is all they can get with a criminal record despite their professional history,” Daeschel said during a news conference at the Capitol celebrating the new program on Thursday.
She said the document also doesn’t show how someone showed up to drug court each Wednesday for more than a year, or complied with their court orders and probation.
“What this piece of paper does not show you is the 12 housing applications that this individual has placed, all to be denied, and finding a place of their own to live,” she said.
"How much time has passed? ... Has enough effort passed? Finally, what you don't see, is this individual who carries a full-time job along with a part-time job, as well as being a full-time student to pursue a master's degree ... knowing all the while that when they graduate, they will have to face that all-powerful piece of paper," Daeschel added.
The Clean Slate program will now "bridge that gap" and help people like her reintegrate into society, she said.
Ron Gordon, Utah State Court administrator, said the law "changes the landscape because it removes some of those barriers that contribute to barriers to housing."
The Utah Courts IT team has developed an algorithm that automatically identifies court cases eligible for expungement.
"For someone like me, it seems like magic, but it's not. It represents literally thousands and thousands of hours of work," Gordon said.
The system has identified nearly 500,000 people who can begin the process of clearing their records, starting with cases that have been dismissed and that resulted in acquittals, he said. The expungements won't happen all at once, but over time.
Gov. Spencer Cox said state leaders "are so excited now that (the law) will be fully implemented," making Utah the second state in the nation with a law of this kind.
Pennsylvania is the first.
"We believe in the rule of law and holding people accountable, and we believe in second chances," Cox said.
Once someone has paid their debt to society, the "stain can be so debilitating," making it difficult to find a job and lead to recidivism. Not to mention low-level offenses, which are "much more common than people realize," the governor noted.
Jess Anderson, commissioner at the Utah Department of Public Safety, said the expungement removes all record of one's criminal history from state and federal records.
While that may sound "scary" to some, who think more serious crimes might be automatically expunged, Anderson said, Utah law requires a certain amount of time to pass before a record can be erased. Anyone with class C misdemeanor offenses needs to wait five years; class B misdemeanors need to six years to pass for expungement; and class A misdemeanors require seven years.
Felonies, violent offenses, DUIs or sex offenses are not eligible for automatic clearances, Anderson said, nor can those with long criminal records have them expunged through petition or automatic clearance.
Research shows that clearing criminal records is good for public safety, Anderson said.
"As people get back on their feet, have an opportunity to get a job, have an opportunity to progress in their life, that they have an opportunity to stay out of trouble with the law," he added.
Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller said the law will improve upward mobility in the state and connect employers to more employees.
It will help businesses "by tapping into a vast, underutilized and skilled talent pool," he said, adding that the process also saves tax dollars, reducing the need for government support by those whose records are expunged.
Miller encouraged "all companies of all sizes" to educate their employees about automatic record expungement, to "maximize the redemptive benefits" to the workforce.
Former state representative Eric Hutchings, who sponsored the Clean Slate bill in 2019, noted problems with the criminal justice system over the years.
"When we catch ya, we're gonna beat ya ... and we're going to use that stick for the rest of your life," he said to describe the system. "That's not who we want to be, that's not who we are."
Noella Sudbury, executive director of Clean Slate Utah, said her organization can help anyone interested in expungement by answering general questions about petition-based and automatic record clearance. She urged people to follow the organization on social media. More information can be found at cleanslateutah.org.