Jan 25, 2023 - News

Utah is a red-state leader in the "clean slate" movement

Utahns line up for a free legal clinic to help expunge low-level criminal records at Vivint Arena.

Utahns line up for a free legal clinic to help expunge low-level criminal records at Vivint Arena. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

A nationwide push to clear low-level criminal records has deep-red Utah to thank for giving "tough-on-crime" conservatives permission to embrace criminal justice reform, advocates say.

Driving the news: A year after Utah fully implemented its "clean slate" law, activists are pointing to the Beehive State as a model for similar legislation elsewhere, activists and elected officials said at a policy summit Tuesday at Vivint Arena.

  • The summit was part of a free legal clinic hosted by the NBA's social justice arm in advance of next month's All-Star Game.

Why it matters: Low-level convictions can interfere with jobs and housing for decades after an offense, preventing people from reintegrating into their communities and driving up their risks for reoffending.

  • "It's like a revolving door you can never get out of," Onalea Turnbull, a Salt Lake woman, told Axios. She attended the clinic for help clearing misdemeanor charges dating as far back as 2001.

Zoom out: Utah became the second state to adopt an automatic expungement system when the Legislature passed the measure unanimously in 2019.

  • Since then, eight other states have adopted similar laws and another 18 are considering them, said Sheena Meade, executive director of the national Clean Slate Initiative, based in Florida.

What they're saying: "I always use Utah as the example … and folks usually lean in when they hear about Utah, especially in progressive states that have been getting backlash on the tough-on-crime narrative," Meade told Axios.

  • Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said at the summit that he plans to give the cause "a megaphone in front of other governors."

Between the lines: With Tuesday's display of unified support from conservatives and progressives under the NBA's high-profile imprimatur, Utah could be in a powerful position to help depoliticize criminal justice reform.

How it works: Most nonviolent misdemeanors can be expunged if the offender goes five to seven years without another conviction, depending on the level of misdemeanor.

  • The expungement is "automatic," which means offenders generally don't have to petition prosecutors, seek court review or pay the thousands of dollars in fees the process would otherwise cost.

By the numbers: Utah courts have identified 216,000 cases that qualify for automatic expungement, about 60,000 of which have been processed since the law took effect a year ago, state public safety commissioner Jess Anderson told Axios.

  • Yes, but: Small irregularities in older records mean hundreds of thousands of cases need to be reviewed, and courts are sending about 7,000 more each month to the state's criminal information analysts.

What's next: The Department of Public Safety is seeking funding for more staff to process cases, Anderson said.

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