It's Macro And I Love It
Both Gabi Fritsch and Joe Kalipetsis started their time in the College of Social Work thinking they would work with clients who were struggling with substance use disorders. Both Gabi and Joe are enrolled in the Substance Use Disorder Treatment Training Certificate (SUDTTC) Program, in addition to being seniors in the BSW Program. And, although the paths that lead them there were considerably different, both wanted to help people struggling with a substance use disorder navigate the difficulties through group or individual therapy. That was the goal. Until both had practicum placements at Clean Slate Utah.
Clean Slate Utah is a nonprofit organization founded to spread awareness about Utah’s Clean Slate law. The law, passed by the Utah Legislature unanimously in 2019, is about simplifying the expungement of certain criminal records—something that affects more than one in four Utahns in some way. These criminal records create a number of barriers, including access to securing housing, ability to find employment, educational access, professional licensure, and more. While Utah has had a legal expungement process for a long time, the process is costly and very complicated. Most people have to hire a lawyer to help them with the process, and most people in need of this service can’t afford one.
Noella Sudbury, the primary author of Utah’s Clean Slate bill and founder of Clean Slate Utah, explained the purpose of the bill was to create more opportunities for Utahns. “We have this costly, complicated, difficult process that is a huge barrier to people moving forward,” she said. “If someone has remained crime free, done everything the court has asked them to do, and turned their life around, they should be allowed to move forward.”
“Under Utah’s Clean Slate law, expungement is automatic. Government agencies have all the information they need to know who is eligible to clear their record. They have the records and Utah has a statute governing who is eligible. So, the question for Utah lawmakers was whether there was a list of offenses where if someone completed their sentence and remained crime free for a set period of time, the Legislature wouldn’t require that person to go through a costly and expensive process to clear it.” Luckily, Utah lawmakers said yes. Noella continued, “At the end of the day, this is a common-sense policy. When you help someone move forward with their life, get an apartment, get a job, support their family, and become a contributing tax-paying citizen, everyone is better off. We’re making communities safer, we’re making our economy stronger, and our society better. Everybody makes mistakes. But when a person does the work to move forward from those mistakes, we ought to welcome them back to the community and offer them a second chance.”
That’s the work Gabi and Joe have been part of this semester—helping Utahns gain second chances. Some of the work they’ve done has been different. Gabi has been involved in community-facing work, making presentations to community partners about Clean Slate—the history of the law, what it does, the benefits, and who might be impacted. She has seen the ways her social work courses have helped her do that work. “Classes like Practice II, where I’ve needed to learn how to lead and talk in groups, have been really helpful,” she said. “Doing my presentations now, going places where I don’t know anybody, I’m not scared. I’ve learned to talk with excitement and passion about the work I’m doing.”
Joe’s major project was to help write legislative updates that made their way into law this past legislative session. “It was intimidating for me at first,” said Joe. “I’ve never been political and it was overwhelming. Thankfully, I’d already taken my policy class. The material from that class really helped me understand the work from a social work perspective and how I could apply social work lens to the process.”
Both have spent hours responding to emails and phone calls from Utahns wanting to know more. “Some of the people I’ve talked to will have had one charge on their record from 20 years ago, but it’s still affecting them. That just doesn’t make sense,” said Joe. “Once you pay your debt to society, it should be paid. With certain crimes, there should be long term caution. But for most, I think people generally try to change and try to become better.”
Gabi agreed. “If we’re wanting to reintegrate them into society, why are we holding them back? The people I’ve talked to want the opportunity to keep moving through society, to build on their lives.”
Noella has been impressed with the work the students have done and the ways their social work education has emerged. “People who work in social work are just so ready for these conversations. Given their training, they’re so good at listening to people’s needs, connecting people to the next best step for them, and helping people feel supported in making a plan to accomplish their own goals.” She knows the conversations have been important in helping Joe and Gabi practice their social work skills. And she’s seen the huge impact they’ve had on the people they’ve talked to. “Really to just have a warm, understanding social worker as the touch point in this conversation, has been great for individuals who still feel so much shame associated with past mistakes,” said Noella. “To feel seen, to feel like they are more than their record, to have a person to talk to who is so understanding of where they’re coming from, I think is a really beautiful thing to offer. I have been so grateful for the opportunity to partner with the College of Social Work in this way.”
Gabi and Joe have loved the work as well. “When I started in social work, I was sure I wanted to be a therapist,” said Gabi. “But being with Clean Slate, I was able to see outside factors that were contributing to why people needed therapy in the first place, and to see how large scale some of the issues are. When Clean Slate went through, it cleared over 200,000 Utahns’ records. Being able to impact our state at that level is very fulfilling.”
Joe echoed this sentiment. “Making a difference on an individual level is very rewarding. It’s personal. But the macro level—seeing how many people are being affected by your work—wow.” He continued, “I’ve really enjoyed macro work in ways I didn’t think I would.”