SALT LAKE CITY — The thundering welcome that Rep. Eric Hutchings received Tuesday during the fifth annual Rally for Recovery wasn't lost on one of his legislative colleagues.
"Rock star," a fellow representative hollered from the granite steps leading to the chamber of the House of Representatives in the state Capitol.
Hutchings deflected the praise, noting that he was part of a large team of people in law enforcement, corrections, criminal justice, substance abuse and mental health who helped develop proposed legislation to allow specific drug-possession felony and misdemeanor offenses to be eligible for expungement.
HB33, which passed the House unanimously and has been endorsed by a Senate committee, also clarifies that pardons granted by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole would have the same legal effect as an expungement granted by a court.
While a person's criminal history is still available to law enforcement, a person whose records have been redacted can tell a prospective employer that they have not been convicted of crime. Ostensibly, the expunged record could not be accessed during a background check.
Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the state has two tracks to seek expungement, either through the Board of Pardons and Parole or through the state Bureau of Criminal Information.
"As it stands currently, if someone goes to the board and gets a pardon, that does not mean they get an expungement," Hutchings told a Senate committee Monday. "They can get a pardon, but it doesn’t do anything as far as their record is concerned."
So people would pay to go through the Board of Pardons process and then petition a court for expungement of their crimes, he explained.
"For the state's perspective, we're wasting a lot of time and a lot of manpower basically doing the same process twice," Hutchings said.
The legislation, he said, would assist people who have paid for their mistakes, are recovering from addiction and have paid fines and restitution.
Still, they can't get past their convictions when they apply for jobs, housing or loans.
"We've literally made it a life sentence," Hutchings said. "When there's no light at the end of the tunnel, people literally give up."
He said the state's expungement process is limited to certain offenses and subject to waiting periods, some as long as a decade after the requirements of sentences or conditions of probation and parole have been met.
"There are specific requirements you have to meet in order to be able to begin an expungement process through BCI. What we're doing here is opening that door just a little bit wider, only in the case of drug-related offenses," Hutchings said.
Jon Stephenson, who is in a substance abuse treatment program and has served time in prison, said HB33 would mean "freedom when you're not labeled any more."
"That would help me a lot," said Stephenson, who held a rally sign that read "Clean Time, Not Jail Time."
Salt Lake defense attorney Danny Quintana, who attended the rally co-sponsored by he Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, said many of his clients have substance abuse issues that contributed to their criminal histories.Comment on this story
Once people have felony records on drug charges, they struggle to find jobs, housing or qualifying for certain government programs.
"You're creating a permanent class of underemployed people," Quintana said.
Hutchings said people who work hard to overcome addiction and move beyond their criminal pasts need help to resume productive lives.
"Getting clean is hard. You need that motivation," he said.
Stephenson said HB33 would go a long way to give a limited number of people a second chance.
"Hopefully, they'll get it passed," he said.