SALT LAKE CITY — It took Teisha Wright about a year to get a 2015 reckless driving conviction expunged from her criminal record, and that was with help from a Utah legal aid lawyer.
Wright, 33, had never been in trouble with the law before nor has she since. But having a misdemeanor hanging over her head hindered her ability to get a job and housing. She didn't like having to check "yes" on an application asking if she had ever been convicted of a crime and was embarrassed to explain the situation to an employer or landlord.
"And you can't lie. You have to tell the truth," she said.
Wright, of Ogden, Utah, said it's a relief to have her record cleared, including several traffic tickets she received a decade ago, earlier this year.
"To have a clean record, it's just a better feeling for myself and then not have somebody judge me for that," she said.
Wright's reckless driving charge would likely have disappeared from the court system on its own under so-called "clean slate" laws that are taking hold across the country. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people like Wright could have their nonviolent crimes expunged without doing a thing.
"There is this really horrible situation where they're crime-free, they're trying to move forward but every time they try, the door is closed and they can't move from that past, even if it's minor, it's old, or just a stupid mistake from years ago," said Noella Sudbury, a lawyer and former director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Council who led the effort in Utah to pass a clean slate law.
An estimated 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. — more than 70 million people — has some type of criminal record, including those who were charged but not convicted. Nearly half of all children in America have a parent with a record, according to the Clean Slate Initiative, a bipartisan national movement to automate the clearing of criminal records.
In Utah, the number is more than 700,000. A record, even one with a decades-old misdemeanor or arrest that never led to a conviction, can prevent a person from getting a job, housing, education, professional license or even a loan.
How do I clear a rap sheet?
Most states have a petition-based expungement process through the court system, but it's typically so complicated and costly that an estimated 90% of people who are eligible for relief never make it through the paperwork. Two law professors at the University of Michigan found that just 6.5% of people in Michigan who qualify clear their records within five years of becoming eligible.
To ease that burden, a growing number of states are using technology to automate the process, which requires no action on the part of people looking to deep-six their rap sheets. Pennsylvania in 2018 was the first to pass a clean slate law where the government identifies and removes certain criminal records.
Utah, Michigan and Virginia followed suit, though the law has yet to be implemented in those states. The Connecticut General Assembly passed a clean slate law, but the governor has not committed to signing it, preferring to narrow the scope of eligible crimes to see how the system works and then expand from there. At least nine other states are considering automatic record expungement laws, according to the Clean Slate Initiative.
Even when people make mistakes or commit crimes, if they have done their time and now live crime-free, they deserve a second chance at freedom and opportunity, according to the initiative.
"When our loved ones, friends, neighbors and community members are barred from fully participating in society and our economy, we all lose out. We can do better. A criminal record should not be a life sentence to poverty, exclusion and stigma," Clean Slate said in a statement.
Clean slate is no free pass
While opposition to clean slate laws hasn't been fierce, some have raised questions such as how people with expunged records would respond to a question on a job application asking if they've ever been convicted of a crime. Also, how does it impact the ability of law enforcement to conduct background checks on people wanting to buy guns.
An editorial in the Hartford Courant said there are reasons to maintain portions of criminal records for future analysis. Knowing how police applied a law, and how that changed over time, would be a legitimate use of public information. But if all records of convictions were wiped out, or kept out of view of the public and the press, the public would lose the ability to analyze them.
"It's important to remember that arrest and conviction data aren't just records of criminal behavior — they are records of police behavior," according to the editorial.
Clean slate proposals, though, have mostly drawn bipartisan support.
"I think what you're seeing across the country is, even though we are very divisive, this is one of those issues that just makes sense. It's good for people regardless of what their political background is because it offers hope and restoration of dignity and a second chance for someone who really wants to integrate back into the community," said Sudbury, who now runs her own consulting firm focusing on government relations, data analysis and access to justice projects.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said a criminal record shouldn't be a scarlet letter for people who have done their time and not reoffended.
"This is not about giving somebody a free pass. This is somebody who has been held accountable and has paid their debt," he said. "If this person who was convicted does not have another run-in with the law for four to seven years, they're no more likely to have the propensity to engage in criminal activity than you and me."
Gill joined 80 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders across the country in a statement through Fair and Equal Justice, a network of prosecutors promoting a more equitable justice system, calling for the expansion of clean slate laws earlier this year.
Pennsylvania leading the expungement charge
More than 36 million criminal cases have been sealed in Pennsylvania since the law there took effect in June 2019, helping an estimated 1 million people, said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
"It has gone sensationally well," Dietrich said.
Under the Pennsylvania law, nonconviction records are automatically sealed after charges are dropped and most misdemeanor conviction records are sealed automatically after 10 years. Expungement in the state means the criminal record is destroyed, so no one can see it, even the courts and police. If a person is applying for a job or apartment that requires a criminal background check, those records are no longer accessible.
Before the law existed, the legal aid program in Philadelphia represented people with records through its employment law practice. Work-related issues were far and away the most common reason that people sought help, Dietrich said.
"Expungements and sealing were really what our clients wanted. They recognized that the issue was bigger than any one job. They needed to get new opportunities by clearing their records," she said.
At that time, legal aid lawyers were doing the cases one at a time, and not even scratching the surface of the need. Dietrich said they knew enough about databases that they thought it should be possible to run a computer query.
The progressive Center for American Progress and the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition advocating for criminal justice reform, got on board. Advocates for the clean slate proposal secured Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania to sponsor legislation. The business community, state police, faith groups, the courts and even the Philadelphia Eagles football team also bought in.
"I like to think of it as building capital investment in your life," Dietrich said. "When you eliminate that barrier, there are so many more options in your life in so many different ways."
When will Utah's clean slate law take effect?
Among states other than Pennsylvania with laws on the books, Utah is the closest to having the system up and running.
The overwhelmingly Republican Utah Legislature unanimously passed a clean slate law in 2019, making it the second state in the country to automate the criminal record expungement process for people with certain misdemeanor offenses. The law allows those with nonviolent misdemeanors cases and infractions to have the records automatically sealed within three to seven years depending on the offense.
The Utah law was scheduled to take effect in May 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start date. The state is working with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve government services, to create a sophisticated computer program to identify eligible cases in the court system.
Sudbury now hopes the state will start clearing records by the end of the summer.
More than 200,000 Utahns have a record eligible for automatic expungement, according to preliminary estimates. When combined with nonconviction records, about 10% of all residents in the state would be in line for some form of relief.
The Utah legislation originally called for the state to notify people when their records were expunged. But because last known addresses in old court cases are unreliable, proponents of the bill decided against mailing sensitive information to likely the wrong place.
Instead, the state is creating a website for people to check their status. A public education campaign also is in the works
Derek Miller, president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said clean slate laws aren't just good for the economy, they're good for people.
Utahns often ask Sudbury if they can check "no" on a job or housing application seeking criminal history once their record is legally expunged. The answer, she said, is yes.
Wright, a mother of two, said it's "pretty awesome" that she no longer has to check "yes" on that box. And, until recently, she wasn't aware of Utah's clean slate law.
"That is amazing," she said. "I bet that's going to help so many people. ... It's just a really good thing for people that do want to change."