Employment after incarceration: the importance of Utah’s Clean Slate law
Noella Sudbury | Photograph by Ori Media
Isat staring at my computer screen, hitting refresh every few minutes to check for an incoming email from the company I’d interviewed with a few days prior. It was January 2023, and I was one of the thousands of tech workers laid off right before the holidays due to a slagging economy.
So many people across the country were, and many still are, in the same shoes. LinkedIn profiles became colorfully decorated with green, ominous “Open to Work” banners, indicating they had met the same fate. But there was one major difference between me and most of those people: I have a felony on my record from over 10 years ago, something that can—and does—stop an employer in their tracks when considering me for a position.
Breaking the cycle of incarceration
In April, KUTV reported there are over 800,000 Utahns who have a criminal background or conviction on their record. That’s one in four people, and 60 percent of them are searching for employment opportunities. Unemployment of people with criminal records is estimated to cost the United States economy up to $87 billion each year, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Half of all children in the United States have a parent with a criminal record, according to the Clean Slate Initiative, a bipartisan national movement to automate the clearing of criminal records.
A criminal record of any kind—even one that is a decade old like mine—can make life incredibly hard. Finding housing can feel impossible because most individuals and companies will issue an automatic rejection once it shows up on a credit check. When searching for a job, answering “yes” to a potential employer’s question about past convictions will often eliminate you from consideration automatically. Most state schools won’t admit anyone with a criminal background, no matter what the offense is. And if you require a professional license in the real estate or medical fields, again, you’re likely to be disqualified.
Noella Sudbury helps solve these problems. She is an attorney and the founder of Rasa—an organization on a mission to educate and make drastic changes for people who are, in her terms, “justice challenged.” I met her at an employer forum event at The Other Side Academy in downtown Salt Lake City, and I instantly wondered, “How did she get involved in something that most people would shun?”
“I guess it stems from my upbringing. My mother grew up in poverty in rural Utah as one of 10 children,” she replies. “I became interested in why some people are born into poverty. What keeps people in poverty, and how do they get out of poverty? And particularly, why is there so much inequity, and how is that fair?”
Becoming an attorney wasn’t on Sudbury’s radar until her undergraduate years at the University of Utah, where she studied social justice as a result of the questions that arose in her childhood.
“Different disciplines look at poverty differently. Public health experts, public policy experts, the law—they all look at it differently,” she says. “That’s really when I became interested in law. I realized that law is part of the problem, … but I also saw that law could be part of the solution.”
After law school, Sudbury did a clerkship for the late Justice Ronald E. Nehring on the Utah Supreme Court. As she researched the briefs, she would read about the backgrounds of the criminal defendants.
“I would read these cases and see how, sometimes, circumstances and trauma and poverty and substance use and mental health were at the root of the criminal justice system,” she says. “People have trauma in their lives, experience violence and have these horrible things happen to them, which creates mental health issues. Often, people turn to substances and other behaviors to just deal with what’s going on. And unfortunately, we make moral judgments about people without understanding what led to those choices. It’s very sad.”
After law school, Noella’s first job was as a public defender. In that role, she quickly realized just how broken the system was and how passionate she was about reform.
“My takeaway from being a public defender is that the system is not taking into account all of those things I learned in college—the trauma, the substance abuse, the mental health challenges that come about as a result—and we’re processing people through the system instead of addressing the root causes of the behavior or providing resources to actually treat the issues that cause the behavior,” she says. “It’s not surprising we’re seeing a high recidivism rate or a churn of people because we’re not addressing their needs. We’re not healing them.”
Brett Tolman—the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, the top prosecutor in the state and one of the biggest advocates for criminal justice reform in Utah—knows this all too well. In addition to his private law practice, Tolman is now the executive director of Right On Crime, a national organization that uses “data-driven solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders and lowering taxpayer costs,” according to its website.
“Finding work is the biggest determining factor on recidivism,” Tolman says. “Across the country, the recidivism rate is at 82 percent if someone can’t find a meaningful job. That’s astounding—82 percent will be arrested again within 10 years if they aren’t working and truly able to provide for themselves. It’s shocking, but not if you understand how many opportunities to fail there are for this community when they get out of prison. When they can’t find work, how are they supposed to survive without returning to crime? If they can’t find housing, what are they supposed to do? These are our friends, our neighbors, and we need to knock down barriers to help them get employment because this is what hurts them most.”
Brett Tolman | Photo courtesy of Right on Crime
Passing Utah’s Clean Slate law
Following her stint as a public defender, Sudbury finally found a way to make changes to the system through a chance meeting with Salt Lake County’s then-Mayor Ben McAdams. The county had a high recidivism rate, and McAdams wanted to see if providing treatment, employment and peer support to people reentering the community would result in different outcomes. Following that conversation, McAdams invited Sudbury to join his team.
“It was exciting to me because I saw it as a chance to tackle these issues at a scale that wasn’t possible at the public defender office,” Sudbury says. “It was an opportunity to actually change some laws.”
In her role, Sudbury worked on many different projects but found there was one in particular that everyone could agree on: record expungement.
“It was across party lines, agency lines—everyone could agree that if someone had been sentenced, served out their sentence, done everything the judge asked them to do and ‘paid their debt to society,’ they ought to be able to move on with their lives,” she says.
Helping those who qualified to have their records expunged was Sudbury’s first “big change.” Through a massive effort involving many volunteers, legal advisers and community advocates, she led the charge to hold an “Expungement Day” in downtown Salt Lake City in April of 2018.
The record expungement process usually takes a year to complete, and the event aimed to expunge as many records as possible in one day. Hundreds of people from all over the state stood in line for hours, many traveling in from far across the state and sleeping in their cars overnight to be first in line the morning of the event.
Sudbury was stunned by the turnout. “It really touched me to see hundreds and hundreds of people in line, some holding hands with their kids, people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “They wanted housing, a job, healthcare—just a better life. I didn’t realize how much a record holds someone back from opportunities until I started meeting some of these people and hearing their stories, and we have a lot in common with them.”
The event was a resounding success, but it also required an incredible amount of work and resources. Sudbury knew there had to be an easier way. She began researching and met contacts in the State of Pennsylvania, the first state to enact the automatic expungement or “Clean Slate” initiative for those who qualify. Sudbury’s contacts in Pennsylvania gave her advice on how to get similar legislation passed in Utah, and she got to work.
“The Chamber was extremely supportive. I really can’t say enough good things about Derek Miller and his staff, who were massive cheerleaders of this effort. The law passed unanimously in 2019,” Sudbury says. “Everybody could agree this is a common sense policy, and it affects a lot of people. If you don’t have [a criminal record], you know someone who does.”
In a press release from 2019, Miller—the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance—claimed the Clean Slate law is a key step to rebuilding Utah’s workforce and driving economic recovery.
“The smart policy of automating the expungement process will give thousands of deserving Utahns the second chances they deserve while at the same time making our state a better place to live and work,” he wrote. “It represents a common-sense solution for closing the justice and opportunity gaps—one that will further solidify our status as the best state for business.”
In February 2022, Utah’s Clean Slate law went into effect, and 534,000 criminal records became eligible for automatic clearance. To qualify, individuals must remain conviction-free for five to seven years, depending on the offense. Covered offenses include misdemeanor A drug possession, most misdemeanor B and C-level offenses and all infractions.
"Different disciplines look at poverty differently. Public health experts, public policy experts, the law—they all look at it differently,” she says. “That’s really when I became interested in law. I realized that law is part of the problem, … but I also saw that law could be part of the solution."
People wait in line for “Expungement Day” outside the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 5, 2018. | Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
What’s good for one is good for the whole
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, people with records represent “an untapped pool of skilled and loyal workers.” The report also asserts that hiring people with criminal records leads to higher retention rates. What’s more, 85 percent of HR professionals report that individuals with criminal records perform as well or better than employees without records, according to a study by the SHRM Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute.
Those who clear their criminal records are 63 percent more likely to get a job interview than those who don’t, Sudbury says, adding that wages go up 20 percent after one year of clearance.
“Big businesses are very supportive because they need workers for their jobs,” she continues. “If we don’t allow someone to get a job because of their record, it costs all of us. If someone isn’t able to get a job, they’re more likely to be on food stamps, government assistance or, worse, return to crime.”
Sudbury recounts the story of one person helped by the Clean Slate law who went from relying on government assistance to owning her own home and being able to support her young daughter all on her own: “Intergenerational poverty was something that had been in her family since the beginning of time,” Sudbury says. “Expungement creates opportunities for people to access a totally different future. If an individual can remain crime-free for at least five years, they have no greater chance of committing a crime than any other individual.”
I’m a living example of these research findings. I have moved past a big mistake that happened over a decade ago during a horrific time in my life. So far, most people who know me have seen past it as well.
Though I never received a reply from the company that interviewed me earlier this year, my job search wasn’t as extensive or as lengthy as I anticipated. A former employer heard I was searching for a job and called with an amazing offer. She knew my background, but more importantly, she knew my work ethic and that she could trust me. She didn’t hesitate to work with me again. My heart overflows with gratitude for her, and for everyone else who continues to give me a chance.