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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Criminal Justice Re-cap of 2015 Session: Part 3!

24 March 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformAlmost there, friends, almost there. This is the 3rd of 4 installments, updating you about mostly good (but some not-so-good) stuff that happened in the area of criminal justice reform during the legislative session. 

This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.

Yes, it seems like ages ago now that all this was being hashed out. But the laws that are made and rescinded by the legislature have a real impact on the lives of real people - and that is especially true of the bills covered in today's installment.

All of these bills are related in some way to what I like to call "Reentry and Reintegration." This takes place toward the END of the criminal justice pipeline - once people have been convicted and done their time (or otherwise paid the price for a crime - real or imagined). This is when people are trying to get back on their feet, put their lives back together, and turn away from past mistakes. The big issue is, we (members of the public and the lawmakers we elect to represent us) seem hell-bent on making it increasingly hard for anyone to move on past those mistakes. 

HB0268 - "Good Landlord Program Amendments," Sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer - did NOT pass (never had a public hearing)

  • What it ATTEMPTED to do: Mostly, this bill tried to make apartment owners and city officials happy by tweaking aspects of state statute related to what are (misleadingly) known as "Good Landlord Programs." You can read a couple of blog posts by me for the Utah Poverty News to learn more about what GLPs are, and what Rep. Froerer was trying to do with this bill (as well as why it died). What the ACLU of Utah WANTED this bill to do is this: make it against state law for cities to FORCE landlords, through these programs, to deny housing to anyone with a recent (like, less than four years old) criminal conviction. In the spirit of criminal justice reform, we thought letting landlords rent to people trying to put their lives back together seemed like the decent thing to do. And note the double-negative here: we weren't asking cities to FORCE landlords to RENT to ex-offenders. We just want them to stop telling landlords they MUST NOT rent to ex-offenders. I know, confusing. Try explaining it to dozens of legislators....
  • What it DIDN'T do: Well, because municipal interests (ahem, Ogden) as well as private landlord interests (ahem, Utah Apt. Assoc.) killed this bill before it could get a public hearing, the ACLU of Utah wasn't able to testify about how the limited changes Rep. Froerer proposed in good faith (saying that cities could only force landlords to deny housing to people with CERTAIN criminal convictions, rather than ALL criminal convictions) would not really translate into meaningful support for people trying to return to their communities after serving time. It also really didn't reflect the input of "all stakeholders," as the League of Cities and Towns like to remark. Advocates like the ACLU, Disability Law Center and Utah Housing Coalition were repeatedly shut out of discussions about this bill and related compromises. 
  • ACLU reaction: Disappointed it didn't get a hearing, appreciative of the small concession that Rep. Froerer DID make, but annoyed enough at all the entrenched interests to convince Rep. Brian King to sponsor....

HB441 - "Good Landlord Program Revisions," Sponsored by Rep. Brian King - did NOT pass (introduced too late in session, but did get favorable vote in House Committee!)

  • What it ATTEMPTED to do: Since Rep. Froerer's bill did not offer an opportunity to have a public discussion about the negative criminal justice implications of these programs, we decided to start our own public discussion. This bill was very simple. It proposed a small language change to the state statutes authorizing so-called "Good Landlord" Programs: cities would not be allowed, as a provision of GLPs, to MAKE landlords deny housing to people with recent criminal convictions. Landlords would still be able to discriminate against ex-offenders (their right as private property owners, and the reason we had great support from Libertas Institute on this issue), but the 13+ cities with GLPs would have to stop COERCING landlords to do it. 
  • What it DIDN'T do: Get the chance at a vote on the House floor. Yes the bill was introduced late in the session, so there was a chance it wouldn't have gotten a vote anyway - but we had our fingers crossed that there could be at least a lively floor debate on this bill, since so many House members showed great support for criminal justice reform (and forgiveness/understanding for ex-offenders). But we heard from a couple of sources that lobbyists from Ogden - which boasts one of the most strict GLPs where ex-offenders are concerned - worked the House hard that night to make sure such a discussion didn't happen. 
  • ACLU reaction: Pleased with Rep. King's willingness to champion this cause. Pleased it got as far as it did - and VERY excited to run the same bill again next year. 

HB40S02 (Originally HB40) - "Expungement Amendments," Sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings - did NOT pass (ran out of time)

  • What it would do: You know if Reps. Hutchings, Madsen and Weiler are associated with the bill, it's going to have some positive impact on civil liberties. This bill simply tried to make expungement - sealing the record of a criminal offense - more complete and simple. It also had this lovely bit in it, which explained the legislative intent behind expungements:   
  • "The inability to obtain an expungement can prevent certain individuals from obtaining gainful employment; however the need for employment should be balanced appropriately against the desire for public safety.It is the intent of the Legislature that allowing for the expungement of certain criminal offenses will provide an opportunity to: break the cycle of criminal recidivism; increase public safety; assist the growing population of offenders reentering the community to establish a self-sustaining life through opportunities in employment; and restore certain civil liberties to offenders to allow them to fully participate in society."
  • What it WOULDN'T do: Support the kind of shaming, stigmatization and fear-mongering that policies like, oh, I don't know, "Good Landlord" Programs, perpetuate. 
  • ACLU reaction: Disappointed it didn't make it. We were supportive - definitely a step in the right direction. We hope there is time to get it through next year.

SB136 - "Statute of Limitations for Criminal Fines, Fees and Restitution," Sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard - PASSED, to be signed by GOV HERBERT

  • What it does: Removes statute of limitations for criminal fines, fees and restitution. I know, sounds like an easy call: people should pay their fines and such, so removing the statute of limitations should be no big deal. This piece of legislation caught us at the ACLU a bit flat-footed - it wasn't on our radar until midway through the session - which means I don't want to bag on it too much without knowing Sen. Hillyard's original intent and motivation. But once I started hearing stories of people who owe tens of thousands of dollars for drug-related crimes - fines that will prevent them from getting student loans, buying a car, moving on - my feelings on issues like this changed. At what point do we decide to let people move on - especially if the state has figured out a way to expeditiously collect the money those people owe? Fines, fees and restitution are a lot more complicated in practice than they may appear in theory. Just ask the reporters and advocates talking about  "the new debtors prisons."
  • What it doesn't do: Let people move on with their lives at some point? There are reasons - legal, moral, political - that statutes of limitation exist: it is one way to temper the power of government to deny individuals life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That's straight up civil liberties territory, people. 
  • ACLU reaction: Disappointed it passed without any question - and no input from affected individuals. Determined to follow up on this in an attempt to soften the blow for people who are struggling to move beyond prior convictions. 

That's all for now. Just one more legislative update to come - some "odds & ends" for you from the session! As I read through my list of CJ-related bills to track - which ended up being about 50 bills long! - I realize that there are lots of important bills that I won't be able to discuss with you, out of fear that people will ask to be taken off this email list because of too many boring emails about legislation : ) But if you have a question about a specific piece of legislation, please don't hesitate to email me. I might be able to give you a short update. 

Thanks for caring about criminal justice reform in Utah! More as it happens...