Utah is poised to become the second state in the nation to adopt an automatic system that will eventually wipe out the criminal records of people convicted of certain low-level crimes.
HB431 creates an automatic expungement process to delete criminal records for those who qualify and have stayed out of trouble.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, dubbed it “one of the most important bills that no one is talking about” when he presented it on the Senate floor Wednesday before lawmakers gave the bill a final, unanimous vote. The legislation now moves to Gov. Gary Herbert for consideration.
The bill automates a process that is already in place for Utahns. But currently, an expungment can be lengthy and confusing — and few take advantage of it. Salt Lake County officials say there is a backlog of applications, so some wait up to six months just to see if they qualify for an expungement.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, will automate that process.
"If you do everything you're asked to do, and jump through all the hoops, there ought to be a mechanism that allows you to get your life back on track," Hutchings said.
The legislation does not change the eligibility criteria for expungements. It covers mostly low-level crimes, and does not allow expungements for felonies, DUIs, or violent misdemeanors like domestic violence or sexual battery. A person must be crime-free for five years for a class C misdemeanor, six years for a class B misdemeanor and seven years for drug possession — the only class A misdemeanor that is eligible for expungement.
Having a criminal record can affect someone’s ability to get a job and can limit housing opportunities, so people often seek expungements to give them a fresh start after a minor conviction.
Rep. Cal Musselman, R-West Haven, spoke in support of the bill, saying he has encountered applicants as a rental property manager who could not get housing because of an old criminal conviction.
He gave an example of someone who committed a crime at 19 years old, and still could not qualify for housing at 27 — despite a decade of working at the same job.
“This was a contributing member of society,” he said. “This is exactly what would have helped that individual. It streamlines the process for those that have already earned it.”
Several groups applauded the legislation, saying the bill allows Utahns a second chance.
“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,” said Rick Larsen, president and CEO of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. “This act allows thousands of Utahns to look forward to their future rather than backward at past mistakes.”
Pennsylvania is the only other state who has adopted automatic expungement laws.
Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, said the vote in Utah shows the state is a leader in the nation for criminal justice reform.
“This legislation will go a long way towards getting back to work and away from crime,” Harris said, “while saving taxpayer dollars and enhancing public safety.”