SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly two years ago, Amy Daeschel, 41, was arrested for the seventh time while in the throes of opiate addiction.
She was one of the hundreds arrested during Operation Rio Grande in the effort to root out crime in what was known as Salt Lake City's most infamous neighborhood for drug dealing.
Daeschel said her journey in and out of homelessness and heroin addiction started with pain pills prescribed after several foot surgeries that went bad.
Her life quickly spiraled. She went from a successful career in the mortgage industry to selling meth to support her addiction. She experienced firsthand the revolving door in and out of jail with each arrest — that is, until that August 2017 arrest, when she'd be given the choice to enter drug treatment funded by the $67 million operation.
Nearly two years later, Daeschel's life has taken another 180-degree turn. She's clean. She graduated from drug court. She now works full time as a peer recovery coach for Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness and volunteers for other recovery programs. She's got her sights set on college, aiming to become a licensed clinical social worker.
But something's still holding her back.
Several drug-related misdemeanor charges linger on her criminal record, some five years old. Others four years old. Although Daeschel said she's done the grueling work to turn her life around, that doesn't show on paper.
In fact, it took her 15 applications before she finally found an apartment that would accept her.
"I did everything the justice system told me to do. I graduated drug court. I paid all of my fines. I did everything that was expected of me to get this behind me and taken care of, but yet it still lingers," she said.
She said it's been beyond frustrating — learning to live as a recovering addict, and yet her past continues to linger, creating yet another obstacle for housing and employment.
"It's hard enough to pull your life around from that dark of an addiction," she said. "I know what my journey was. I know what I had to go through. I completed everything successfully. … Now I want that stigma erased and just be able to move on with my life."
So Daeschel's onto the next step in her journey: expungement.
But it's not an easy process. And it's not cheap. It requires an intimidating amount of paperwork, understanding of legal jargon, months of waiting, and perhaps hundreds of dollars in fees.
"So when you're coming literally from being homeless, rebuilding your life, trying to get everything back in order, expungement seems like a non-option," Daeschel said.
But thanks to a Salt Lake County initiative — continuing efforts after Salt Lake County's first Expungement Day event last year caught the attention of about 100 people hoping to clear their criminal records — Daeschel has help.
And so can hundreds of others.
Salt Lake County is holding another Expungement Day on Wednesday, when another army of prosecutors, attorneys, judges and others will join forces at the Utah Law and Justice Center, 645 S. 200 East, to help streamline the complicated and expensive process to clear eligible records. Clients will be able to sit down with attorneys from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
But already, 200 people have filled appointments for the day, said Noella Sudbury, Salt Lake County's senior policy adviser on criminal justice who has helped organize the county's expungement day events. After last year's event, Sudbury's team saw a wave of public interest, hundreds asking when the next Expungement Day would be held.
But there's still an option for people wanting help expunging their records.
Wanting to do more than to direct clients to next year's event, Sudbury sought another way. County officials successfully lobbied the Utah Legislature over the winter to pass a "clean slate" law, which allows eligible offenders with certain misdemeanor or infraction convictions to have their record automatically expunged when enough time has passed. The law goes into effect on May 1, 2020.
To help clients in the meantime, Salt Lake County applied for and won a $150,000 grant to hire a part-time "expungement navigator" — a law school graduate to help people along the process — and to help pay for Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification fees.
With that grant, the county hired Jake Smith, where he's on hand to help people all the way through their application process.
Sudbury said she estimates Smith will help between 300 to 500 people by the end of the year, depending on eligibility. The grant may be renewable for potentially up to three years, she said.
"Expungement opens up so much opportunity to get people back as contributing members of society, but it also restores their dignity and makes them feel like they're worth it," Sudbury said. "I think it creates a lot of hope."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has thrown her full support behind the program, seeing expungement as another avenue to help end the jail's revolving door, homelessness and drug addiction.
"It's just hard to break into the system and find your path to success if you have a criminal record," Wilson said. "I think it's a really common sense reform, but it's not an easy one."
Wilson said she's "personally moved by people who" rise above addiction, and she believes it takes an "exceptional person" to complete that journey, so it shouldn't be as difficult for an eligible person to expunge their record.
Smith has been working with Daeschel on her application. Last week, he gave her some good news while meeting with her and Wilson. Rather than having to wait six or seven months for her application to be processed by the Bureau of Criminal Identification, Smith told her he now estimated only four months for the paperwork to process. After that, she'll know what on her record will be eligible for expungement.
Smith said he's passionate about helping people put their past behind them when they deserve it — and he welcomes anyone wondering about the process to reach out and ask for his help.
"Not only are we doing Expungement Day, but we're able to help for the rest of the time," Smith said.
Just because someone did something "silly" years ago doesn't mean they can't be a "good citizen on paper as well," Smith said. And if more people can navigate the expungement process, it can help perhaps help recidivism rates and help end cycles of homelessness or addiction.14 comments on this story
"That's the real story here is people have their individual issues, and there's something heartbreaking in every single one of them," he said. "And if we as a county can help them in any way, that's fantastic."
Anyone seeking more information about Salt Lake County's expungement resources is encouraged to contact Smith through email, at JaSmith@slco.org.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Salt Lake County's expungement navigator, Jake Smith, as an attorney. He's actually a law school graduate.