New Rio Grande outreach aims to help people clear their criminal records

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Greg Skordas speaks with a client who is seeking to expunge his criminal record after being picked up in a Rio Grande crime sweep. Salt Lake County is helping former offenders clear their criminal records if they meet qualifications dyrubg their "Expungement Day" event on April 5. Skordas is helping with expungements pro bono for drug court clients and volunteered to do them for this event as well. He was photographed in his Salt Lake City offices Friday Feb. 23, 2018.

So you got arrested years ago, paid the penalty, did your time. Since then, you’ve cleaned up, and now you’re trying to stay on the straight and narrow. But your criminal record follows you when you apply for work, and holding down a job is critical to your success.

Sure, you can get your Utah record cleared if you meet the requirements, but that costs money you just don’t have.

For those in that predicament, another effort arising out of the Operation Rio Grande initiative is coming to help.

Salt Lake County is teaming with the state Departments of Workforce Services and Public Safety, Catholic Community Services of Utah, and a group of volunteer lawyers to help eligible candidates clean up, or expunge, their criminal records. The agencies and volunteers will cover mandatory state fees and provide legal assistance on a special “Expungement Day” event April 5, and they’re reaching out now to sign people up.

“The expungement process can be complicated to navigate. It can also be really costly,” said Noella Sudbury, coordinator of the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council. “Having a criminal record, even if it’s old, is often a big barrier to people trying to get back on their feet.”

Expungements are handled by the state. Applying costs $50. The state Bureau of Criminal Identification gets up to 400 applications a month and, given the volume, says it can take up to six months to review them.

If the state approves the application and a judge orders the conviction cleared, state law allows applicants to treat the expunged offense as if it never happened. Each cleared conviction costs $56. Applicants don’t need a lawyer, but a mistake in the process can mean a lengthy setback. And enlisting an attorney to help can cost up to $1,000.

There are mandatory waiting periods to apply for expungement: seven years for a felony; three to five years for a misdemeanor or infraction, depending on severity; and 10 years for a misdemeanor DUI and certain categories of felony drug-related crime. All fines, fees and restitution must be paid.

There are also convictions that can’t be expunged and conditions that make someone ineligible, including violent felonies, sex crimes, or multiple felony or misdemeanor convictions arising from separate criminal incidents.

Starting small, not limited

Operation Rio Grande, beyond targeting crime in and around downtown Salt Lake City’s homeless population, also sought to help people caught up in cycles of homelessness, addiction or petty crime. The Expungement Day event grew out of conversations around that outreach. Initially, the effort is focused on people involved in the “Dignity of Work” program begun in November.

Though it’s not limited to that group, the program will start small. Application costs and fees are being covered by private donations. Flyers advertising the event are being posted in shelters and other outreach facilities. Participants will get help determining if they’re eligible, preparing their applications, and filling out other paperwork.

Those interested can sign up by calling the county Criminal Justice Advisory Council at 385-468-7095. The event is slated to be held in the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall at the Weigand Homeless Resource Center, 437 W. 200 South.

“We want to allow anyone who is currently struggling with this in the county to give us a call,” Sudbury said.

Expungement Day is April 5. Weigand Homeless Resource Center, 437 W. 200 South. Call 385-468-7095 to sign up.

As for legal help, a team of lawyers — as many as 30 — will be on hand the day of the event to provide free services. Expungement is not a particularly complicated legal process. But participating lawyers will get some training ahead of time, said Salt Lake City attorney Greg Skordas, who volunteered for the event.

“People who have gone through the court system, shown a willingness to keep themselves clean and a willingness to try to further their lives, should have a chance to do that without being burdened by a criminal history haunting them the rest of their lives,” Skordas said. “We’re not going to have any problem getting lawyers to come out and help these people. I think judges will be sympathetic in signing some of these.”

County Mayor Ben McAdams said the event might be reprised from time to time in the future.

“The costs aren’t enormous. It’s just the pro bono legal time and the fees of processing the expungement,” he said.

“We believe in consequences for your actions,” he added. “But for people who’ve turned their lives around and proven that they can hold it together, I think we want to be a place where they can clean up their lives and continue to move forward.”

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