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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

True Reform Means Letting People Move On

01 February 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

What if you’ve paid your debt to society, but society won’t let you back in?Screen Shot 2017 02 01 at 7.21.46 AM

One of the many negative social consequences of decades of mass incarceration is that so many otherwise good people out there continue to struggle – long past they have completed their court-ordered obligations – to get their lives back together again.

People with criminal histories – even for non-violent, drug-related offenses – face an uphill battle when it comes to securing housing and finding stable employment. Sometimes people face these challenges simply because they were arrested and charged with a crime, even if they were never convicted.

The ACLU of Utah has been working for years now with many excellent partner organizations to slowly chip away at these sometimes overwhelming barriers to a successful return to the community after being involved with the criminal justice system.

Groups that advocate for people who are poor and homeless, such as Crossroads Urban Center, work with many individuals who are forced into homelessness because their criminal histories prevent them from renting an apartment. Groups that advocate for people with disabilities and substance use disorder, such as the Disability Law Center and USARA, see people turned away from otherwise accessible housing because of long criminal histories that reflect their struggles with mental illness and drug addiction. Racial justice organizations, including the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition and others, have long recognized that our unequal justice system has led to unequal access to housing and employment because of these barriers.  

Church-based social service programs, like those of Catholic Community Services and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, spend countless hours helping individuals overcome these barriers to safe housing and stable employment – but they could use some help from Utah lawmakers.

That is why we are very hopeful about this trio of “re-entry” bills that take some important baby steps toward making safe housing and stable jobs more accessible to people with criminal histories.

HB178, “Good Landlord Program Amendments," sponsored by Rep. Brian King (D-Salt Lake), would change state law so that municipal “Good Landlord Program” ordinances could not force landlords in the program to deny housing to people with criminal histories. Currently, several Utah cities – including Ogden, West Valley City and Clearfield – insist that participating landlords refuse to rent to people with criminal histories, as part of their “Good Landlord” ordinances. If this bill passes, “Good Landlord” programs could still operate, but they would have to do so without this discriminatory provision.

HB156, “State Job Application Process,” sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake), would update the application process for state employment so that initial applications would not ask about criminal convictions. State agencies would still be able to run background checks on prospective employees, later in the application process. This type of “Ban the Box” effort has been enacted all throughout the United States, and has been shown to help people with criminal histories – those who are otherwise qualified applicants for jobs – to move further into the application process. “Banning the Box” is an important symbolic effort, as well, reminding employers that prospective employees are more than just their criminal histories.

SB12, “Expungement Amendments,” sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley), would change the eligibility requirements for obtaining a state criminal records expungement, so that very low-level infractions do not keep people from cleaning up their criminal histories after sufficient time has passed. This is a baby step toward making the expungement process easier and more accessible, and we look forward to working with Sen. Thatcher in the year ahead to make more significant improvements.

Taken together, these bills show Utah lawmakers’ commitment to moving beyond the past several decades of mass incarceration. We support this focus on helping people become productive, included members of our local communities, and we hope you will, too.

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