Salt Lake County is reducing the penalties in 13,929 drug cases

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) District Attorney Sim Gill, announces an effort to reduce penalties for minor drug offenses, during a news conference at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Building, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.

More than 12,000 people convicted of drug offenses could now have an easier time expunging their records, as the Salt Lake County district attorney and defense lawyers announced plans Tuesday to lessen the penalties for offenses committed over a span of 18 years.

People convicted of felony drug crimes in Salt Lake County between 1997 and 2015 could see the greatest benefit, District Attorney Sim Gill said at a news conference. Their crimes could be reduced to misdemeanors, making them eligible for expungement and a variety of government benefits, as well as certain housing and jobs.

Attorneys described the plan Tuesday as a companion to a bill passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year and to criminal justice reform passed in 2015. The reform shifted most drug offenses in Utah from felonies to misdemeanors. And the new law, starting in May 2020, will automatically expunge some offenses after a person does not commit new crimes for a certain number of years.

Many of the people covered by the planned penalty reductions will now join others receiving automatic expungements. But individuals convicted more recently will need to file their own requests if they want to seek an expungement sooner than the law’s timeline.

Barriers that can be reduced by an expungement include restrictions on jobs, housing, education and credit.

“If we’re going to have any meaningful reform," Gill said, "we must make sure that when you’ve paid your debt to society, these barriers must be also eliminated.”

Gill said he will file a joint motion with Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, asking 3rd District Judge Mark Kouris to reduce the sentences for 12,334 people in 13,929 cases.

State courts spokesman Geoff Fattah said the courts have been working with both prosecutors and public defenders to prepare the motions.

He added that a judge must rule on each case individually, and said, “We are working on ways to streamline the process to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible."

Those thousands of people whose cases are up for review have completed their sentences and are no longer on probation, parole or court supervision. Gill said he made a “reasonable effort” to exclude defendants who were convicted of a violent crime, driving under the influence, lewdness and other crimes against a person.

Tony Padjen, a former addict and felon, spoke to reporters during the news conference and thanked prosecutors and defense attorneys for hearing stories like his and doing “something positive about it.”

Padjen said he is about to get married and is pursuing a degree at the University of Utah. He owns a business. He is a good friend, a good neighbor and a good son, he said.

But he wasn’t always that person.

He turned to drugs and alcohol for relief from self-doubt when he entered adulthood and got addicted, he said. He was later convicted of a felony when he forged a check from his employer to pay for more drugs.

Reflecting on that arrest almost a decade ago, and everything that’s happened since, Padjen said he’s grateful for the tough intervention from the criminal justice system — and that he looked forward to a second chance at life once he got out of custody.

Yet he was faced with issues he didn’t expect when he tried to reintegrate into society.

"I looked for employment and housing, and found out very quickly that my past would be an obstacle to opportunity and security,” he said. “The limitations I faced, the stigmatization placed upon people like me again made me feel less-than, and fear crept back in.”

Thanks to therapy and other support, Padjen didn’t relapse. He persevered and continued with his life, eventually learning to deal with the “black spot” on his record and understanding that his past mistakes “place a ceiling” on his future.

Attorneys asked to reduce the level of his offenses on July 31. On Sept. 11, a judge approved it. “What this has created for me,” Padjen said, "is hope.”

With their move Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys hope those like Padjen, who have served their time, won’t have to face additional collateral damage for their past actions, so long as they have stayed on the right track.

"We in the criminal justice system are giving them nothing except opportunity,” Gill said of the move to lower offense levels.

Not everyone on the list will be eligible for expungement, although many will be, he added.

Gov. Gary Herbert, whose call to reduce recidivism in 2014 spurred the 2015 reform bill, declined to comment on the attorneys’ motion. He released a statement saying he “supports efforts to implement the policies found in HB348 and he supports efforts to help people who have been convicted of a crime become productive members of our communities and our society, as long as they do not pose a threat.”

Miriam Aroni Krinsky, executive director of the Fair and Just Prosecution project, called Gill and Mauro’s move “bold and innovative." The project, part of national nonprofit The Tides Center, works with prosecutors across the country to develop policies for a more equitable and less incarceration-driven justice system.

Their plan can impact thousands of offender’s lives for the better by giving them a real opportunity to rebuild their lives — and would also be a boon for the places they live, Krinsky said.

“At the end of the day, the community is better off when we don’t spend money and resources preventing people from being productive members of our community, but instead look at how we can put them on a better and more successful pathway,” she said. “That’s a win for everyone.”

Gill and Mauro said they anticipate Kouris will grant their motion, since both sides agree lowering the level of offense in these thousands of cases is the right thing to do.

The two men signed the request — thousands of pages inside a fat black 3-ring binder — on Tuesday in front of reporters at the news conference, and held the book up for photos. Gill declared, “This is what justice looks like.”

— Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this article