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Salt Lake County prosecutor moves to clear criminal records

File photo: Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Photo credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The top prosecutor in Salt Lake County is filing to reduce drug-related charges for thousands of Utahns, making them eligible to clear old criminal records.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the move would allow most of the group of 12,000 people to expunge their criminal records. Criminal histories can create difficulties for people applying for jobs, new housing rentals and even secondary education. Gill said it’s time to let those who have served their time lead productive lives.

For people like Tony Padjen, a felony drug conviction has been a huge burden to bear.  He became addicted to opiates and had been in and out of jail several times.  He has been clean for years and has been working to get his life back on track.  He and some friends started a company to help others find a way out of addiction.  However, his felony convictions came back to haunt him.

“The system currently in place debated whether or not to remove me from my own company, based on my past,” he says, adding, “When I realized pursuing an education would help me even more, I was faced with a possible denial.”

Padjen wants to become a licensed therapist, but, some schools place heavy restrictions on convicted felons.

“I came to the realization that my past placed a ceiling on my future,” he says.

Padjen was told last week that his convictions have been reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, and that has been a huge blessing for him.

In 2015, state lawmakers reduced the severity of certain drug possession charges.  Some of them used to be considered third degree felonies but now they’re only misdemeanors.  However, this change didn’t work retroactively.  So, Salt Lake County DA Sim Gill’s office decided to reduce the severity of certain crimes going back to 1997.

“Having a criminal record is the modern-day equivalent of being forced to wear a scarlet letter,” Gill says.

According to Gill, people with criminal records face nearly 50 thousand different restrictions that other people don’t have to deal with.  These restrictions make it extremely hard for people get their lives back together.

Gill says, “We know that housing often requires having access to your criminal history.  We know that government benefits, student loans and licensing for certain jobs are all impacted by our criminal histories.”

His office used the help of University of Utah law students to comb over 100 thousand cases.  They found 12,334 people who could have their felonies turned into misdemeanors, or their Class A misdemeanors lowered to a Class C.  With those reductions, the vast majority of those people would be eligible to have their records automatically expunged since they’ve stayed out of jail for long enough.  The automatic reduction, though, wouldn’t happen until this spring.

This applies only to drug possession charges, and not to drug sales.  Gill says other crimes like sexual battery, weapons offenses, lewdness and DUI would not be reduced.

A new law that took effect earlier this year streamlines the process to expunge a criminal record. What once was a long and expensive process is now automatic. Violent offenders and perpetrators of other types of crimes are not eligible, but people with certain misdemeanors would have their records expunged automatically if they have no new arrests within a certain number of years.

Gill said in this case, his office looked at criminal filings going back to 1997, the first year criminal charges were filed electronically. They only considered “low level” drug possession and property crimes.

Some of the drug-related convictions affected are 20 years old, said Miriam Krinsky with Fair and Just Prosecution.