In 2019, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that allows some people with nonviolent, misdemeanor criminal records to have their convictions automatically expunged under certain conditions. This law is a great step forward in helping people who have been convicted of minor crimes establish productive lives, but it is only the tip of the iceberg of what we can do to give them more opportunity and hope.
People Returning from Prison Face Great Challenges
People who have served their time and want to re-enter society have a very difficult time finding jobs, housing, and needed services. For example, only 55 percent of prime-age men who leave prison have any earnings in the first year after being released, and the median earnings of those who earn an income is just above $10,000. There are certainly many factors at play, but having a criminal record doesn’t help.
When a potential employer or landlord does a background check and it shows a past arrest or conviction, many of them automatically move on to other candidates, even if the arrest or conviction occurred many years before and the person has since genuinely reformed his or her life. In essence, many good people are branded forever with a “scarlet letter” and have little hope of becoming productive members of society.
We Should See Former Prisoners as We See Ourselves
We’ve all made mistakes in our lives, even if not the kind that would send us to prison. When we make mistakes, we often make changes to reform ourselves and hope others will see us as we are–people who are doing our best, have great potential, and need a second chance. That’s how we should see people who have been released from prison.
Certainly, some people who have committed crimes show few or any signs of remorse, reform, or progress, but many recognize their mistakes and are determined to turn their lives around by re-entering society and becoming productive citizens. We should recognize their great worth and potential and give them every opportunity to enjoy the kind of lives we hope to live.
What Utah Has Done to Help Former Prisoners
Utah’s “clean slate” law allows a person’s criminal record to be expunged automatically when it involves minor misdemeanors and infractions, with exceptions for violations involving things like weapons, sexual battery, or a DUI. Allowing automatic expungement for minor infractions makes sense because we typically view people who make them as less likely to make similar mistakes or to pose a danger to society. Also, expunging records automatically in these cases is good because people often don’t have the knowledge or money to do it themselves.
Utah has also been making practical efforts to help former prisoners. For instance, attorneys have been providing a remote legal clinic where they offer advice and other assistance to former prisoners who want to clear their records. These efforts are important for people who want a new start but don’t qualify for automatic expungement, aren’t familiar with the legal process, and can’t afford to hire an attorney.
We Must Do More to Help Former Prisoners
Although these recent measures are helpful, Utah can do much more to help ex-prisoners successfully re-enter society and become self-reliant. For example, the Clean Slate bill offers automatic expungement, but former prisoners have to wait from five to seven years for it to happen automatically, and three to ten years if they have to apply for expungement. What are they to do during all those years until their record is cleared?
Three or more years is a long time for returning citizens to struggle with finding suitable work and housing, which makes it difficult for them to support their families and become self-reliant. One idea to bridge this gap is to devise a screening process that identifies newly released prisoners who have genuinely reformed their lives and are prepared to become productive citizens. Their records could be expunged sooner, or even temporarily with the possibility of permanent expungement if they continue to show promise.
Another idea is to enhance employer incentives for hiring former prisoners who haven’t yet, or will not, qualify for expungement. Some incentives already exist, such as bonds and tax credits, but we should consider increasing and expanding tax incentives so more employers want to participate. We could also recognize companies that go above and beyond by hiring many former prisoners.
Another idea is to provide help for ex-prisoners with unrelenting debt. Many returning citizens face insurmountable debts owed to family members, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. These debts can bury people hoping for a better life, making it nearly impossible to succeed and become self-reliant. Some ideas for helping them include a 90-day grace period, forgiveness of fines and fees owed to the state, and improving debt reduction plans.
Measures like these would give returning citizens more opportunity to succeed and become self-reliant, and it would also likely prevent many of them from returning to prison or needing long-term welfare assistance.
Allow Former Prisoners to Change and Improve Their Lives
Every person has great worth and potential, including those who have made poor decisions in the past resulting in incarceration. We should treat everyone as we would want to be treated–given another chance with as many opportunities as possible to return as contributing members of society. Instituting measures like those described here would remove barriers that would give former prisoners the opportunity and hope they need.