Thousands of people in Utah's largest county would be able to clear their records of drug crimes under a push announced Tuesday that advocates say goes further than many similar efforts around the nation.
The move by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, which is expected to be approved by a judge, could make about 12,000 people eligible to expunge their records and remove obstacles to getting jobs, housing and education, he said.
"Having a criminal record is the modern-day equivalent of being forced to wear a scarlet letter," Gill said. "If we're going to have any meaningful reform, we must first make sure when you have paid your debt to society these barriers are eliminated."
The push comes amid a wave of criminal justice reforms in the U.S. A number of states and cities have moved to allow people with marijuana-related convictions to clear their records in places where the drug has been legalized.
In Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country, the GOP-dominated Legislature has passed a law allowing many misdemeanor crimes to be automatically expunged for people who stay out of trouble for a set period.
The move by Gill, a Democrat, would turn thousands of felony convictions into misdemeanors, allowing them to be automatically wiped away when the new state law goes into effect next year.
The plan goes further than many reforms elsewhere in the country because it includes a wide range of drug-related convictions, some dating back two decades, said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the group Fair and Just Prosecution, which works with prosecutors around the country on criminal justice reform. The Utah effort is extraordinary, she said.
Gill's office sorted through drug-related convictions from 1997 through 2015, looking for people with misdemeanors and low-level drug possession felonies who had stayed out of trouble for at least five years.
More serious crimes such as sexual battery, driving under the influence, weapons offenses and other crimes involving drugs were not eligible.
The move is a relief for Tony Padjen, a heroin addict who got clean after an arrest in 2010. However, his convictions on related charges such as forgery and theft have kept him from getting many jobs.
He helped start a substance-abuse treatment center, Balance House, and has seen hundreds of people work to beat their addictions. Still, many of them feel defeated when their records keep them from getting an apartment, student loans or work.
For some offenders, that can mean falling back into the things that got them into trouble with the law in the first place, said Rich Mauro, head of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association. He's co-signing the effort from Gill.
Padjen, however, is aiming to become a clinical social worker with his convictions cleared. "I feel like a freedom has been given to me that I've lacked for a lot of years," he said