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There’s a long backlog to clear criminal records, so Utah is eyeing a 3-year pause

The doors to the chamber of the House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Feb. 22, 2024
Saige Miller
The doors to the chamber of the House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Feb. 22, 2024

In 2019, Utah lawmakers unanimously passed a Clean Slate Law that paved the way for eligible Utahns to automatically have their criminal records expunged. The demand has been so great, however, lawmakers are now considering a three-year pause on most new filings to get caught up.

The Utah Administrative Office of the Courts has sent more than 450,000 records since 2022 to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification for expungement consideration and verification. While the courts have technology that allows them to identify records potentially eligible for expungement, the bureau has to manually process the cases.

That’s resulted in “312,000 cases in the backlog right now for auto expungement,” said Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee. Her proposed solution is HB352, which would put a temporary hold on processing new expungement cases in most instances.

“The pause for three years doesn't pause automatic expungement. It simply pauses the courts batching over more cases to build the backlog.”

Advocates with Clean Slate Utah and Rasa Legal, two organizations focused on helping Utahns through the expungement process, said Lisonbee’s bill is “good” but they have concerns.

Destiny Garcia, director of Clean Slate Utah, went through the expungement process and said it changed her life. She told KUER that she doubled her salary, became a homeowner and no longer relies on government assistance to make ends meet.

“A lot of people that we are working with really just want to get their lives back. They want to support their families and they want to do it the right way,” she said. “We would support a little shorter pause and work out the issues.”

To Noella Sudbury, CEO of Rasa Legal, the bill stops the courts from “generating new orders for automatic expungement” for three years. Sudbury said the way the courts are operating is working – but the Utah Department of Public Safety, which houses the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, “is broken.” She said there have been “some struggles” in the implementation of the clean slate law within the agency.

“If we're going to pause anything, let's pause the thing that's not working. Let's let what is working continue.”

But Lisonbee doesn’t believe the courts are working properly. Right now, she said, the courts will begin to erase criminal records of people currently incarcerated or on probation, prioritizing those cases over people who “have done everything they need to do and are not committing further crimes.”

“I think it is really vital and important to understand we do not want people to have to wait in line behind people who are currently incarcerated, are currently under supervision for a felony offense, where the expungement would not be appropriate and where it's happening anyway.”

Lisonbee added the proposed moratorium would give the courts time to figure out the correct filters for automatic expungement cases.

The bill does allow someone in the verification queue to fill out a form to jump the line to clear their record, even during the pause. But that no longer makes it automatic expungement. A working group would also be created to identify how the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification can improve its workflow to manage the criminal records coming its way.

“Hopefully through the great work of this workgroup, [we can] figure out what those implementation issues are, and preserve this policy that was unanimously passed five years ago,” Sudbury said.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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