Utah Taskforce Helps Chronically Homeless Clear Petty Crime Records and Integrate Back into Society

By Michael Klazema on 8/12/2015
Like ex-criminal offenders, chronically homeless people are often the victims of scorn, rejection, and mistrust when they make the decision to try to integrate back into society. For homeless individuals with criminal records, even if those records are made up completely of petty crimes, finding a way to build a better life can be doubly challenging. Since ex-offenders and homeless people are both heavily stigmatized groups, someone who is both of those things at once can often be spurned when trying to become a contributing member of society once more.

In other words, such individuals are often stuck between a rock and a hard place, a situation that a recently established taskforce in Utah is looking to help fight. The Utah Homeless Taskforce was launched last year through a pilot program, designed to help the chronically homeless find housing and employment, and rebuild their lives. The program was largely aimed at assisting homeless people in clearly petty crimes from their records, according to a report from Fox 13 in Salt Lake City. Now, the pilot program is being extended for three more years, with the hope of having an even greater impact on these two oft-marginalized groups.

The task force's mission statement is tied to both criminal expungement and "ban the box" philosophy, two trends that have been making headlines in the background check industry as of late. Homeless people will occasionally commit petty crimes while living on the streets, from stealing food to riding on public transportation without paying for it, and those crimes can follow those individuals around for years after they have started to put their lives back together. One source interviewed in the aforementioned Fox 13 report, an operator of a homelessness halfway house, said that many of the people he works with have trouble finding employment simply because they have to check the box on the job application next to the "Do you have a criminal history?" question.

The Utah Homeless Taskforce was launched specifically to help such individuals. Formerly homeless people who are living in transition homes and making concentrated efforts to re-integrate back into society are eligible for the program. Those who are referred to the program receive help applying and making a case for criminal record expungement. So far, 97 individuals have been referred to the Utah Homeless Taskforce out of halfway homes across the state, and 22 of them have successfully had their records expunged.

Of course, not everyone is eligible for the program, and not all homeless individuals referred to the program will be successful in applying for expungement. Certain felony crimes can't be expunged under Utah law, while repeat offenders with a long list of convictions are less likely to be taken seriously. The Utah Homeless Taskforce, for instance, won't work with anyone with more than five convictions, simply because the likelihood of complete criminal record expungementis low in those cases.

According to the NELP, Utah is currently one of the few states in the country with no "ban the box" laws on the books, either for private or public employers, and either at the state level or in individual cities and counties. As a result, the Utah Homeless Taskforce is really the best option available right now to help formerly homeless individuals overcome past mistakes and find jobs or places to live. With that said, if legislation is introduced in the state to "ban the box" entirely, then the taskforce may not be needed anymore. In any case, it will be interesting to see what happens.


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