Bipartisan Clean Slate initiative will help Utah and former offenders

Written by Rick B. Larsen

February 25, 2019

Originally published in Deseret News.

Every so often, lawmakers have the chance to pass a law that will improve public safety, increase government efficiency, change thousands of lives and improve legislation that is essentially already on the books in Utah. Such is the case this year in Utah, where legislators are considering a just, smart, bipartisan initiative called Clean Slate.

Clean Slate is an outgrowth of national efforts to help former offenders find employment and move forward with their lives. It uses existing technology to expedite the expungement of the records of people who were convicted of minor offenses and have remained crime-free for a specified period of time.

Existing rules already allow these folks to petition the court to have their records cleared. But it’s an expensive and lengthy legal process — many simply don’t pursue it. That means tens of thousands of Utahns remain haunted by old convictions that block them from joining the workforce, accessing housing or pursuing educational opportunities.

Why should we care? As conservatives, we believe in justice — but we also strongly believe in second chances. Once offenders pay their debt to society, they should be encouraged as they rebuild their lives, not confronted with barriers that make it difficult for them to provide for their families and lead fulfilling lives.

Clean Slate is an approach designed to reduce such barriers. It is a way for former offenders to break free of stigmas that continually punish them for past mistakes. Last year, Pennsylvania became the first state to embrace the initiative, and it’s now under consideration in other states.

In Utah, the Salt Lake County mayor’s office convened an Expungement Day in April of last year. The event drew a huge turnout and sparked interest in the legislation about to be introduced by state Rep. Eric Hutchings. Those in attendance painfully recalled the sinking feeling of applying for jobs that require a background check, knowing it would doom their chances of getting an interview, let alone a job offer.

Under Utah’s Clean Slate proposal, the state would harness technology to automatically seal or expunge qualifying records for people who remain crime-free for a certain number of years. It would facilitate what is already approved and would not change Utah’s existing expungement policy or expand the definition of who is eligible. It would apply only to misdemeanors, minor infractions, acquittals and dismissals — not felonies.

Utah’s current expungement system is too difficult, time-consuming and costly — and it is plagued by a heavy backlog that requires petitioners to wait several months just to determine their eligibility. After that, the process can take up to two years and cost several hundred dollars — not counting attorney fees. By eliminating the need for people to manually file petitions, Clean Slate would also reduce the strain on Utah courts.

Data show that the court approval rate for expungement in Utah is 99 percent. Given that success is virtually assured for petitioners, automating the process is a no-brainer. Not only would it save taxpayers money through increased government efficiency, it also would speed relief for thousands of deserving Utahns who are already eligible.

The Salt Lake Chamber has made Clean Slate one of its 2019 legislative priorities, recognizing that former offenders represent an untapped labor pool needed to help fill shortages in Utah’s workforce. That’s important, and we applaud the Chamber’s foresight. But Sutherland Institute and American Conservative Union are supporting Clean Slate because it is also about doing the right thing — for people, for families and for our communities.

With Clean Slate, Utah’s legislators have the chance to do just that.

Rick Larsen is president and CEO of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. David Safavian is deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

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