Justice and Due Process

Salt Lake County Reduces Drug Penalties for Thousands

Salt Lake County announced yesterday that they are working on reducing drug penalties for 13,929 criminal cases from the past 18 years. This substantive change means that some of the convictions will likely be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, opening the door—potentially for thousands of people—for an expungement of their criminal records. Expungements help people move on from their past mistakes by clearing their conviction history, breaking the barrier that stands between themselves and good jobs, housing, loans, and schooling. Obtaining an expungement can be a transformative life improvement for those living with a criminal record. 

But the process of getting an expungement granted is a long and expensive one. Many have a difficult time figuring out how they can apply, and if they even qualify. Salt Lake County has partnered with local organizations and community leaders to offer free expungement clinics for the public, and they are able to help hundreds navigate the confusing legal process at these events. This is an incredible opportunity for many people, but for every person helped, there are dozens more living with criminal records. 

The expungement process needs major reform so that people of all income levels can easily check eligibility status, and apply for expungements from home. But to make this happen, the state Legislature needs to implement major reforms alongside the courts, which is out of the counties control. In the meantime, counties should do what they can to help as many individuals as they can. Utah County and Salt Lake County both announced pre-trial diversion programs to help divert low-level offenders from the court system, and into individualized programs that may include educational or volunteering elements. This is another great example of county government acting on their own to help people caught up in the legal system.

The Utah Legislature recognizes the importance of clearing criminal records once a person completes their sentence. Just last session, they passed a bill into law that automatically expunges the records of those with qualifying lower-level misdemeanor charges. This monumental change will allow many Utahns to access expungements while avoiding the lengthy process in its entirety. This is what gives the action Salt Lake County took yesterday significance. If the courts allow all these penalty reductions, then many of these people will be eligible for automatic expungement.

We applaud Salt Lake County’s efforts to make people’s lives easier and more productive by reducing legal barriers they may be facing. Other County District Attorney’s should follow Salt Lake County’s lead because all Utahns with drug convictions could benefit from penalty reductions and expungements. This reform is substantial for the county, and very personal for thousands of Utahns.