Lawmakers unveil legislation that would expand expungement

January 30, 2019 GMT

A bipartisan group of lawmakers Tuesday unveiled a bill that would increase the ability of low-level offenders to virtually erase their criminal records.

Proponents of the bill argue changes to the process of expungement — in which a person can petition to have his or her record cleared of a nonviolent, lower-level offense — would provide a second chance for criminal offenders by removing some barriers to employment.

But the bill and previous versions of it have also received pushback from open-records advocates who criticize efforts to conceal records from public view.

When a criminal case record is expunged, it is sealed from public access unless a court orders it to be unsealed. Information about expunged cases is not available on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website.

Proponents of the bill argue, however, that expanding the use of expungement could help alleviate the difficulty some Wisconsin employers currently have finding workers for available jobs, amid a low statewide unemployment rate.

“This is profound legislation that is transformative for thousands and thousands of individuals in the state of Wisconsin,” said Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, who introduced the bill with Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and Sens. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Fred Risser, D-Madison.

The bill would change the points when a judge can expunge an offender’s criminal record and would make clear the significance of that action to employers.

Currently, Wisconsin is the only state that requires a judge to decide on eligibility for expungement at the time of sentencing. The bill would also allow judges to consider expungement after the offender completes his or her sentence successfully, giving defendants two chances to petition a court for expungement.

Judges have the discretion to deny expungement.

To be eligible, an offender would have to successfully complete his or her sentence, which includes fulfilling community service, paying fines, fees, restitution and completing community supervision without revocation.

The bill would apply retroactively, meaning those who have successfully completed their sentence before the implementation of the bill could be eligible.

That could make thousands of people eligible. A report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum states, for example, that there were 30,638 closed cases in Milwaukee County alone between 2006 and 2017 that meet Wisconsin’s current eligibility criteria.

Under current law and under the bill, people convicted of misdemeanors and low-level class “H” and “I” felonies are eligible for expungement. Serious crimes, such as sex offenses, would not be eligible.

The bill would eliminate the requirement that offenses must be committed under age 25 to be eligible for expungement. Traffic crimes, such as drunken driving, would not be eligible for expungement. Wisconsin is one of only four states with an age-limit restriction.

The law would make clear that a crime that is expunged is not considered a conviction for employment purposes.

“Our employers are begging us to give them workers who have the right attitudes who want to get back to work. We want to give those offenders who have records the ability to have that second chance and get back to work,” Darling said.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders said he understands the importance of the legislation to employers and those with criminal records but wishes it were not necessary to shield court information from the public.

“I wish that there were some trust in the ability of the citizens of Wisconsin to be discerning in their judgments about the public records that they can see,” Lueders said.

The bill would not erase all evidence of a person’s criminal record. FBI databases and the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Crime Information Bureau (CIB) would still have a record of criminal history. The CIB, in most cases, is publicly available for a fee. Goyke said those databases, however, usually note when an expungement has occurred.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, noted the Assembly unanimously passed similar legislation last session. It failed in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he plans to meet with his caucus in coming weeks to discuss the bill.

“Senate Republicans are focused on workforce development and making sure that our state’s hard-working families and businesses are having their employment needs met,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.