When bid farewell from life behind bars, former inmates are expected to stay out of trouble—maybe get a job or go back to school, anything to help them achieve a peaceful transition into a stable life. Though this may be the ultimate goal, the government doesn’t exactly make it easy for this progress to happen. Burdensome laws paired with social stigmatization make it remarkably difficult for any former lawbreaker, formerly incarcerated or not, to combat the myriad of obstacles they’ll face along the way to a productive life.
Imagine someone who made a poor decision in their past, resulting in a low-level misdemeanor. They completed their probation program long ago, and years have passed since they initially committed the crime. One would think their life would be back to normal—but unfortunately, that’s not the case.
People who have had run-ins with the law in their past are still faced with long-term struggles due to their lingering shadow of the past, whether it be an arrest or criminal record. This shadow follows them everywhere, creating a dark spot on job applications and job screenings. People are denied opportunities for which they are overqualified, turned down for housing in places they can afford, and declared as ineligible for student loans because of their history. Their best chance at overcoming these barriers is to make this part of their past invisible to others through an expungement.
Totaling to a minimum of $265 for an application, certificate, and filing fee, expungements aren’t easy to obtain in Utah—especially for low-income Utahns looking to bootstrap their way back into a productive life. These costs may increase if they hire a lawyer to help with the process, or if multiple records need to be expunged. Once an application is submitted, it could take up to six months to process the paperwork due to the high volume of applicants pouring in each month.
Even a person charged, tried, and found not guilty in a trial still has to pay for their arrest beyond the cost of bail. Utah law doesn’t automatically allow arrest records to disappear if the defendant is acquitted. The person still needs to expunge the record if they want the evidence destroyed—which means innocent people must pay even when they did nothing wrong.
The lengthy expungement process and its corresponding fees disproportionately affect low-income people who worry about more immediate challenges—like how to pay next month’s rent—rather than how to clear their record. They can ask for an expungement fee waiver, but this isn’t a standard part of the process nor are they often given, meaning few know this option exists.
Utah should consider offering fee waivers for low-income people needing expungement.
In Salt Lake County, over 500 people accessed free legal services to clear their record with the help of a private and public coalition who hosted a free expungement day. This event served as a reminder that there are many individuals who have served their time and paid their debts but are never able to fully move on from their past due to financial barriers preventing them from applying for a clear record.
Individuals aren’t the only ones impacted by their past, but the labor market as a whole. When former prisoners and people with felonies can’t find work, one study found the economy is negatively impacted—costing the U.S. $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP.
Time restrictions act as yet another hardship for those with a criminal past. They aren’t eligible for expungement unless they’ve waited anywhere from three to ten years, depending on the severity of the crime. There’s no exception to cut this waiting period even by a small margin, even if the individuals have paid all their fees, served their sentence, followed court orders, and completed mandatory requirements.
Instead of solely relying on punishment to oblige people to follow court orders, the state could also reward good behavior by sealing—but not destroying—the records of eligible ex-convicts. At the end of the mandatory time limit, their records would be automatically expunged. This “expungement pending process,” would incentivize individuals to stay on track, allowing them to access more economic opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available with a public criminal record.
At present, even sealing this record wouldn’t hide the person’s past from the government itself—meaning that workers needing occupational licensure would still be denied permission to work in their chosen occupation. Utah’s law should change such that the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensure recognize this pending status and allow applicants to be licensed.
Individuals who have paid their “debt to society” and have remained crime-free shouldn’t have to be penalized their entire life. They should be granted the opportunity to start fresh and place their mistakes permanently in the past. Until Utah lowers or waives fees for low income people, and good behavior is incentivized by the law, expungement laws will continue to be a overwhelming obstacle for people who are trying to move on from their past.