Michael Graham, a recovered addict, has chased a high almost his whole life, ever since he tried crystal meth at the age of 13. Now 55, the recovering addict can see a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions reflected in one glance at his job application.
“You can sit in an interview and everything’s going fine, but when their eyes fall on [the criminal conviction] section, you can pretty much tell the interview is over,” Graham says. Graham served a five-year federal prison sentence for possessing with intent to distribute in 1989. He spent another year in federal prison in 1997 because of drugs. In 2000, he picked up state charges and, in the next decade, took almost a dozen trips to state prison for parole violations from using and selling drugs.
“I would come out of prison on parole, couldn’t get a job, couldn’t find a place to live, and start selling again,” Graham says.
Graham now works as a volunteer and support-group leader for the nonprofit Utah Substance Abuse Recovery Advocates (USARA) in Salt Lake City. He credits his recovery to a handful of saving graces: his father, USARA, the grace of God and a parole officer who gave more than “half a crap.” He told Graham, who has both pancreatic and throat cancer, that if he didn’t straighten out, he would likely die in prison. Graham refers to drugs as a “vicious cycle.” He’s learned the hard way that it’s the user who shoulders the blame. But users’ downward spiral accelerates when the system brands them as felons, making it difficult—if not impossible—to find jobs and housing.
Now Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is proposing legislation in the upcoming 2013 Legislature to make it easier for recovered addicts to clean their records and gain back their lives. Hutchings says his House Bill 33 doesn’t fling the door wide open for wiping drug histories away but does “open the door a little bit” for giving offenders the chance to expunge their record.
Currently, the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, the agency in charge of expunging criminal records, does not allow for the wiping of multiple felonies. Hutchings says the research and counsel of treatment professionals and law enforcement show that a drug offender could be hit with multiple felonies from a single criminal episode and thus, in one fell swoop, be disqualified from cleaning his or her record.
“Say you get pulled over and you get a DUI … they find paraphernalia on you, that’s another, then it turns out you actually had a bag on you, so, bingo, that’s possession—three felonies, boom, you’re done, you no longer qualify for expungement,” Hutchings says. “That’s what we’re trying to solve.”
The bill language would instead qualify individuals to have multiple felony drug offenses expunged from a single criminal episode, or two felony drug-possession convictions from separate incidents. To qualify, however, the individuals need to have paid their dues—served sentences, paid court-ordered fines, finished probation and parole—and then wait seven years before seeking the expungements. Hutchings hopes that the change may also provide an incentive for offenders to seek treatment in earnest after a felony conviction, rather than falling back to drugs.
“Otherwise, they might say, ‘I’ll always be a criminal, so screw it, I won’t even try,’ ” Hutchings says.
The bill was initially filed in the 2012 Legislature by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who held the bill back after deciding it needed more study. He instead created a committee to fine-tune the legislation for the 2013 session. Santiago Cortez, a former board chair of USARA, sat on that committee along with representatives from law enforcement, the Utah State Board of Pardons and the Attorney General’s Office and says he sees a lot of promise in the bill.
“This creates an avenue for people to become whole again,” Cortez says. He’s seen many beat their addictions and even spend years in college with the goal of working in drug treatment, only to be held back by felony records dating back more than a decade. “If you have a felony, you can’t work with children, you can’t work with families and you can’t often work in mental health,” he says.
The bill received unanimous support in an interim legislative committee, thanks in part to the bill’s careful language—for example, not allowing violent drug-related convictions to be expunged.
Hutchings says the bill also has the benefit of cutting down duplication in the system. Currently, a person seeking an expungement and a pardon would have to go to the Board of Pardons and prove they’re rehabilitated. The board would have to call witnesses and experts from the original convictions and essentially retry the offense, Hutchings says. Then, after being granted a pardon, the offender would have to undergo a nearly identical process for the same offense with the Bureau of Criminal Identification. The process can be time-consuming and costly—not only for the individual but also for the state. Hutchings’ bill would give the Board of Pardons the power to pardon and expunge drug felonies at the same time.
“It will literally save them months of time and thousands of dollars,” Hutchings says. “It will be a significantly streamlined process.”
For Cortez, the bill provides perhaps greater cost savings to the state by having faith in those in recovery. He notes that there are myriad corrections and vocational rehab as well as court-ordered therapy, among other government programs, that look to rehabilitate drug users. If addicts have taken steps to recover, it is a bitter pill to swallow for their permanent records to shut them out of job and housing opportunities years after they’ve recovered.
“Being an addict shouldn’t be a life sentence,” Cortez says.