Our post-legislative-session blog series continues today with a post about several “re-entry support” bills that passed during the 2017 Legislative Session.
Criminal Justice Reform on the Hill: Part 3 (The Re-Entry Edition)
This post was written by Juan Carlos Guerrero, an ACLU of Utah intern and University of Utah student.
As you may know, people who have been involved with the criminal justice system face serious obstacles, once their sentence has been completed, as they try to rejoin their communities. A lot of serious obstacles. That’s why we were so pleased to see these three solid bills make it through the legislative sessions. We believe that their implementation will help Utahns who are trying to move on with their lives despite past mistakes. These three bills are part of a much broader criminal justice reform effort to help people with criminal histories assimilate back into society.
People with criminal convictions often have trouble getting their foot in the door for potential job opportunities, due to discrimination based on their criminal history. This occurs despite the work experience, education and life skills these individuals accumulate over their lifetimes – including during incarceration. Even a very qualified applicant may be turned down for an interview once a prospective employer sees that “have you been convicted” box checked on the initial application.
“Ban the Box” is the name of a nationwide effort to address this particular obstacle. “Banning the box” means removing that initial inquiry about past convictions from the first stage of the job application process. This gives allows applicants more of a chance to be vetted on their credentials – not just their past convictions.
HB 156, "State Job Application Process," sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake), will change the application for employment with the State of Utah so that the checkbox that asks about prior convictions is not present. Although this change will only apply to jobs with state government agencies, it is still great step in the right direction – especially given that the state government is one of the largest employers in Utah.
It’s safe to say that everyone makes mistakes at some point or another within their life. But while some get to look back at their mistakes as distant memories, others are haunted by them – in the form of discrimination as they seek employment, housing, professional licenses, college grants and other things.
Fortunately, there are ways to have your criminal record expunged, so that certain offenses don’t appear on your criminal record. Unfortunately, expungements can be a long, expensive process, and some people aren’t even eligible for them.
SB 12, "Expungement Amendments," sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley City), will help with that eligibility issue. This legislation will allow more people to be eligible for expungements, as minor infractions (such a traffic infractions and licensing violations) will no longer count aginst their eligibility. Although there are still many issues of accessibility and affordability within the expungement process, this bill will serve to increase access to that process. Sen. Thatcher has also indicated that he would like to work with members of the criminal justice reform community - including the ACLU of Utah – in the future to take this re-entry support effort even further next year.
HB178, "Good Landlord Program Amendments," (Signed into law by Governor Herbert on March 20, 2017)
There was much push and pull over this bill, but it ultimately wound up prevailing! HB178 will lay the foundation for ending government-sponsored discrimination against people are trying to rent a home. Thanks to this bill, Good Landlord Programs in cities across Utah can no longer force landlords to deny housing to people who have a criminal history.
One hotly contested amendment, proposed by Rep. Jeremy Peterson (R-Ogden), sought to provide exemptions for Good Landlord Programs in cities that host a “Community Correctional Center” or halfway house. The amendment passed, but thankfully, its impact will be very narrow. Only three cities have CCCs in them – Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Ogden – and only one of those cities – Ogden – was invested in the goal of the amendment.
The ACLU of Utah and its allies were able to convince the Ogden to expand its new “waiver program,” so that landlords can apply for waivers on behalf of their tenants, in additions to allowing tenants to apply for themselves. This means that landlords who are willing to rent to someone with a recent criminal history can play an active role in helping that person overcome the barrier of the waiver application process.