Every day, thousands of Utahns are burdened by nonviolent criminal records that torpedo good job prospects, deny them homes, and even prevent them from getting driver’s licenses – even though they have fully served their time in Utah’s criminal justice system and qualify for their records to be cleared.
We should make clearing the slates of these individuals as simple and automated as possible. Why allow an old criminal record to stop the transformation of a former offender into a productive citizen? An important step in solving this problem is forthcoming legislation – being sponsored by Representative Eric Hutchings – that is the outgrowth of a national push on this issue called the Clean Slate Initiative.
The hurdle of clearing a criminal record – called expungement – is a significant one. It often requires an attorney and court filing fees of several hundred dollars across multiple court jurisdictions, making it an expensive and impractical endeavor. It is also economically harmful: The American economy loses around $80 billion per year from underemployment or unemployment of individuals whose criminal records are an obstacle to getting a good job. And with almost half of American children having a parent with a criminal record, this problem is weakening both families and the economy.
In a digital age, there is little justifiable reason why an outdated expungement process should continue to hold back nonviolent offenders who already qualify for a clean slate. After they have properly served their sentence, whether in prison or otherwise, it makes no sense to continue to keep them and their families in an economic prison. For conservatives, the reasons to solve this problem through Hutchings’ Clean Slate Initiative legislation become quickly apparent.
First, the Clean Slate Initiative establishes proper limits on the role of the state in the life of an individual and their family and prospective employers. Once the government has served the interests of justice and public safety by incarcerating someone for a nonviolent crime and maintaining a publicly accessible criminal record for them for a reasonable amount of time, they should get out of the way and allow that individual a second chance at becoming a productive member of society. A nonviolent criminal offense should not become a life sentence of government-enforced barriers to individual and family prosperity.
Second, the legislation should improve the state’s fiscally conservative budget by reducing recidivism among nonviolent offenders, who could easily return to lawbreaking if their criminal record becomes an insurmountable barrier to economic self-reliance. It is a tragedy not only to the lives of nonviolent offenders, but for taxpayers, when society pays for the repeat incarcerations of those who could have become taxpayers themselves under a more streamlined expungement process.
Third, the Clean Slate Initiative legislation serves the common good by taking the rule of law seriously. Once justice is served by a nonviolent offender serving adequate prison time and post-prison supervision, it is unjust to allow an unnecessarily complicated and expensive expungement process to deprive them of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Allowing injustice to masquerade as criminal justice undermines the very meaning and value of justice – a foundational principle to the rule of law. This outcome serves the interests of no one.
Rather than continue with an antiquated expungement process, Utah policymakers should promote principles of limited government, fiscal conservatism and the rule of law by enacting Hutchings’ Clean Slate Initiative legislation. Not only will they be doing Utah’s economy and taxpayers a favor, they will be promoting a conservatism that offers individuals and families – even those with imperfect pasts – the hope and human dignity of earned success. And that is worth a few bureaucratic headaches.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute.