SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of people in Salt Lake County came out of the shadows Thursday to get their criminal records expunged. A criminal record can block a person from getting work, housing, education and even from visiting their grandchildren.
Officials with Salt Lake County said they believe in second chances, and with the help of several partners, organized free legal help on its first-ever expungement day at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall at 437 West 200 South in Salt Lake City.
“Having a criminal record makes life tough,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. “It will follow you around, sometimes for a lifetime. We want our communities to be safe, and we expect people who commit crimes that make our communities unsafe to pay the consequences. But then, we want to help them to help themselves turn their lives around.”
A coalition of volunteers, including 40 lawyers with the Utah State Bar helped past offenders eligible for expungement to clear their names. The Utah Department of Workforce Services, the Department of Public Safety, Catholic Community Services, Salt Lake City Justice Court and the lawyers turned the dining hall into a bustling legal clinic for past offenders who have paid their debt to society.
“This today is a big deal, a big deal,” said Denette Young of Salt Lake City. She was convicted of felony drug possession in Utah in 1996, and the same charge four years earlier in Colorado.
“There have been barriers in my life,” she said. “I have not let them define me.”
Because of those old convictions, Young has been denied employment, housing, and two years ago something worse.
“I was denied custody of my grandsons because of my felony record,” said Young, who hasn’t seen her 4- and 5-year-old grandsons for more than a year.
Free of criminal charges the last 22 years, Young now works as a peer counselor in addiction recovery. She started the expungement application process a couple of weeks ago, and lawyers at the event helped her expunge her record.
“We all make mistakes, bad choices in our lives. That was in my past. It doesn’t define me.”
“It will no longer be shadowing my life,” she said.
Nearly $20,000 in private donations covered the costs of application and certificate fees. The attorneys donated their time.
“There are consequences for your actions,” said McAdams. “But, we also believe in mercy. Once you’ve paid your debt, and you’ve paid for your consequences, we want people to move forward.”
For past offenders eligible for expungement, their cases have been closed, fees have been paid, and a court-determined period of time has expired, depending on the crime.
“This is about giving people a clean slate, helping them to move forward, helping them to get a job, to get a home,” said the mayor.
Nearly 500 people either called or showed up to find out about their eligibility for the program. Several dozen had their records expunged, others got the process started, and many more were deemed not eligible.
“This is really a down payment, and investment from us as a community to individuals to say that when you have paid your debt to society, that you get to be welcomed back as a productive member of our community,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “Our whole notion of the criminal justice system is premised on the notion of rehabilitation. On the premise that when you pay your debt to society, that we welcome you back into our community to be an equal partner.”
Denette Young is grateful that day has finally come for her.
“Even though people looked down at me because I had felonies, I kept my head up high, and I kept plugging through,” she said.
Now that she has a clean record in Utah, she will plead her case in Colorado, which does not have expungements. She may have to pursue a pardon to clear her name there, but she said she felt emboldened by her new sense of freedom here.
“We all make mistakes, bad choices in our lives,” Young said, admitting that drug addiction was hers. “That was in my past. It doesn’t define me.”