Molly Davis: Utah will soon allow some lower-level crimes to be cleared from the record

But that doesn’t help much if people who would benefit don’t know about it.

(Jessica Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 19, 2020.

“I was unable to get jobs. ... I couldn’t get housing. I spent hundreds of dollars on housing applications and was turned away even though I was five years sober, I was in school, I had an income and doing well, landlords didn’t care — all they saw was my record.”

Catie Cartisano shared her story with lawmakers and the public during a legislative committee hearing in 2019. She was speaking in support of passing House Bill 431, sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings, to ensure the state would begin automatically clearing past criminal records for lower-level offenses. And it worked.

Utah’s criminal expungement law will soon be fully implemented, and eligible records will be automatically cleared. But there’s one problem that legislation can’t fix: Not all Utahns know about it, even though chances are pretty high that this law will impact them when fully implemented.

Utah’s Indigent Defense Commission estimates that one in three Utahns have a criminal record. We are doing those individuals a disservice by not informing them of the new law that could greatly impact their life.

Catie no longer has to get nervous or embarrassed when filling out a job or housing application because her record is expunged. She knows that when future employers or landlords run a background check on her, nothing will come up. When she fills out the application, she’s also legally allowed to say she hasn’t had a criminal past. She can say the same in the interview process. Because of this, her employment prospects are likely much better than when she testified that day in committee.

But if she hadn’t known about the law, it wouldn’t have done her any good. She still would’ve been honest about her criminal past on applications that asked. And to her own dismay, it would’ve hurt her ability to move up in society.

The specifics of the bill can be found on Utah’s legislative website, but the following offenses qualify for expungement. Infractions and traffic tickets after a period of three years since the conviction, most Class C misdemeanors after five years following the conviction, most Class B misdemeanors after six years post conviction, and Class A drug possession misdemeanors after seven years. As you can see, these are all lower level offenses. Only one Class A offense qualifies, and no felonies do. This chart explains more details of who qualifies.

The Legislature kept more serious offenses, like sex and gun crimes, from being included in the expungement bill. Individuals with these types of convictions may still qualify for clearing their records, but it won’t be done automatically. They’ll have to rely on the traditional method of expungement, which is, unfortunately, more prohibitive than the new automatic process.

Prior to the passage of HB431, all Utahns with criminal records had to figure out expungement on their own — an expensive and confusing legal process for most people. Many simply didn’t even try to get their records cleared and, if they did, there’s a good chance they just hired an attorney to help them navigate the process. Now, those with qualifying misdemeanor offenses will be automatically cleared so long as they follow the court rules.

If you’re reading this, and have a criminal record or know of someone who has a criminal record, please share this information as it could help someone’s job and life prospects. Living with a criminal record creates a burden for thousands of Utahns who want to live their life to the fullest but simply can’t. Soon, many of those individuals can experience forgiveness in exchange for their good behavior and patience following a conviction.

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.

Molly Davis is a policy analyst with Libertas Institute.