Utah’s Legal Services Sandbox is a Game Changer

Earlier today, Robert Gehrke at The Salt Lake Tribune published a fantastic column on the success of Rasa Legal, one of many participants in Utah’s legal services sandbox, which helps people navigate the process of expungement.

The basic idea behind expunging criminal records is that punishment should end once a person serves their sentence. It shouldn’t follow them into job interviews or loan applications — especially for low-level misdemeanors committed when a person was a minor. The only effect that keeping a record would have at that point would be to hinder their transition back into civil society.

Despite this underlying ideal, the process of criminal record expungement is cumbersome, unknown to those who could benefit, and filled with financial barriers. There are hundreds of thousands of Utahns with a criminal record who run into difficulty just trying to access foundational things like housing, occupational licensure, and employment. This kind of systemic barrier makes reentry into civil society a nightmare, and it’s one of the leading reasons that reoffending is such a huge problem not just in Utah, but nationwide.

But Utah is a great state for the idea of redemption. And a public policy approach that’s focused on reforming criminal behavior and assisting with a person’s reentry into society should be a central focus. That’s why, as we scale back on the over-criminalization of the past, expungement will be a critical tool for people trying to move forward and make a fresh start. 

In Utah, many advocates, including Libertas, have worked for years to improve the expungement process — like our work implementing an automated expungement system. That’s where groups like Rasa Legal come in. They help people understand the process, determine if a person is eligible for automatic expungement, and explain how they can begin the formal process if automatic expungement is not possible.

Groups like Rasa are able to do what they do because the Utah Supreme Court established a regulatory sandbox back in 2020. In the time since, dozens of companies have been participating, and as we’ve written in the past, these participants have had amazing success helping people in need.

As with most policies and programs that make a difference in people’s lives, there are detractors within the legal community who would rather go back to an old way of doing things and protect their stake in the profession. But the impact and innovation happening within this sandbox cannot be ignored. Some of those numbers tell a story of redemption for someone turning their life around, especially those using services like Rasa. Without the legal services sandbox, that same service would have required a lawyer, making the process unnecessarily expensive and complicated – effectively putting up a barrier to a fresh start for many.

As the Utah courts and Utah legislature review the results of the regulatory sandbox and consider continuing to fund and support the program, the data should not be drowned out by hypotheticals and political rhetoric. The sandbox is helping people with legal issues in a real and productive way. That kind of impact should be given the attention it deserves, and Utah should continue to help this marginalized community reenter society and thrive.