By Katie McKellar
SALT LAKE CITY — More than 20 years ago, Denette Young said she relapsed into a cocaine addiction, which would lead her to carry a burden for the rest of her life: a felony drug conviction.
That was 1997. Since then, Young said she hasn't had any more drug charges and has turned her life around. And yet, that felony charge — preceded by a separate 1992 felony charge for drug possession in Colorado — continues to haunt her.
"I've been turned down for jobs, for housing. I've been denied custody of my grandsons," Young said.
"But today is a big deal," she said Thursday. "A big deal."
Young was among dozens of applicants participating in Salt Lake County's first ever "Expungement Day," where a team of prosecutors, attorneys, judges and others joined forces to help streamline the complicated and at times expensive process to clear eligible criminal records so, legally, applicants can start with a clean slate.
Rows of tables and computers lined the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall across the street from the Rio Grande homeless shelter Thursday, where attorneys met with clients to fill out and exchange paperwork.
Young was on her way to her own appointment with an attorney, after her application with Salt Lake County qualified.
"This will no longer be shadowing my life," she said. "It didn't matter what I did in my life for the last 25 years. What mattered is that I had a felony."
Meanwhile, Mindy Sipes was already exchanging paperwork with an attorney. She hoped to clear forgery and theft convictions that have been stamped on her record since 1998, when she said she stole checks and forged signatures when she was 18.
She said it's a "horrible feeling" to check the box on job applications acknowledging she has been convicted of a felony.
"This is a blessing," Sipes said. "I cried on my way here because of the emotion of finally being able to not check that box or have somebody see that and think I'm a horrible person anymore."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, at a press event to kick off the day, lauded the program as a way to bring those who have "paid their debts to society" to come out of the "shadows" and remove barriers to work, housing and education.
"These individuals today are law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who are trying to move forward but they continue to be held back by their past mistakes," McAdams said. "Some couldn't afford to expunge their records. Others told us the system was too complicated and they didn't know where to start.
"So today, we're giving those individuals a chance to hit reset, to start over, and to have a clean slate," McAdams said.
The program was made possible by $19,200 in private donations to cover the costs of application and certification fees, along with 40 volunteer attorneys.
Kaytline Beckett, one of those attorneys, said she was "incredibly excited" to see all of the services in one room — from prosecutors to judges and other social service programs — so even those who might not qualify for an expungement now could be redirected to other services that could help them eventually become eligible.
"Navigating the legal process can be difficult, and expungement comes with a lot of paperwork, so it's just a good opportunity to assist people who wouldn't normally know this was an option, let alone know how to follow through with it," Beckett said.
After Salt Lake County began accepting expungement applications in February, more than 400 people called asking to participate in the program, said Noella Sudbury, the county's senior policy adviser on criminal justice. Of those, 52 people applied and 32 qualified and were issued 191 certificates showing legal proof of expungement eligibility. Of those, eight applicants were issued 10 or more certificates per person.
Thursday afternoon, additional participants in the Rio Grande area were welcomed to fill out applications on a walk-in basis. By the end of the day, 73 applicants were served, though not all left with complete expungements, said McAdams spokeswoman Michelle Schmitt.
However, about 75 people lined up outside the dining hall were turned away because they couldn't be paired with an attorney in time. Schmitt said there's "definitely a possibility" the county may do another Expungement Day, but the county will have to study the results of the event to see if it makes sense to do it again.