By Gretchen Schuldt
A bill that would dramatically expand the pool of people eligible to have their criminal records expunged drew strong support at a public hearing this week before the Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee..
Grace, 34, a former Wisconsin resident, told about a crime she committed 13 or 14 years ago, when she took a plea deal on a theft charge, that continues to follow her.
Now she is married, lives in Florida, has children, and wants to be a firefighter.
"The haunting of my past continues to appear, and drag me into the stereotypical felon's barrier," she said. "I am not the felony charge, but it is defining the future I admire to become. Can you imagine the feeling of being known at every intersection of progress by the worst failure of your life? Probably not... I am being disabled by something many years ago should be put into proper context today. I can only imagine the thousands of stories of good people reestablishing their lives, but still walking around with invisible shackles of a poor decision."
Multiple organizations, including WJI, the State Public Defender's Office, the Badger Institute, and the Milwaukee Police Association, testified in favor of the bill, AB69.
WJI President Craig Johnson said the measure "is very important as it allows people who have made a mistake to get a fresh start without being stigmatized for life in their search for gainful employment, housing, and in other contexts."
Dale Bormann Jr., president of the Milwaukee Police Association, said his members see the devastation crime visits upon the victim and the perpetrator's family and future.
"We also see many outstanding members of the community who may have, for whatever reason, engaged in a single criminal act years prior, taking full responsibility for their act and have worked to better themselves, but struggle to move forward," he said.
The union hopes "this bill will allow people not to be defined by their worst day but rather the entirety of their collective actions throughout their life."
The State Public Defender's Office said the bill makes clear that people with expunged records may check "No" if they are asked on job applications if they have been convicted of a felony.
"This seemingly simple change will clarify decades of unclear statute and caselaw on this
subject. It will also lessen a significant collateral consequence of conviction in finding employment."
Wisconsin's expungement law is stricter than other states' laws. Currently, a person who wants to have a criminal conviction expunged from their Wisconsin record must ask the judge at the time of sentencing, before the judge has any idea how that person does in prison or on supervision. The law also limits the availability of expungement to those less than 25 years old at the time of the crime and to those who do not have a felony conviction record. The offense for which expungement is requested must not be a violent felony and must not carry a penalty greater than six years in prison.
The pending bill, sponsored by sponsored by State Reps. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) David Steffen (R-Green Bay), would change the law in several ways. It would remove the discriminatory age limit of 25 and would allow people convicted of crimes to request expungement when they complete their sentences.
Other limits, including the types of crimes eligible for expunction, would remain in place.
Under the bill, once an expunction petition is filed, a judge will review it and either grant or deny it. If denied, a new petition may not be filed for two years.
The bill also would limit a person to one expunction.
The legislation also makes clear what it means to successfully complete a sentence. That would include completing community service, paying all fines, fees, restitution, and completing any community supervision without revocation, according to the co-sponsorship memo.
WJI's Johnson questioned the fines and fees portion of the bill.
"That language imposes a 'poverty penalty' on those seeking expungement of their criminal records and who simply do not have the resources to pay the full amount owed," he said.
Judges should be allowed the discretion to determine if an individual seeking expungement has made a good-faith effort to pay any monetary debts and to allow expungement for a person who has.
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the Waukesha County Business Alliance, in their joint statement supporting the bill, said that nearly 1.4 million Wisconsin adults have a criminal record, "including 42 percent of Milwaukee's job seekers."
Ex-offenders, they said, continue to suffer consequences after they have served their sentences.
"Many vocational licenses cannot be obtained by individuals with criminal records, yet those vocations are often the jobs for which ex-offenders are most qualified," they said. "Additionally,
it's harder for ex-offenders to get home loans, go to college or join the military."
The bill "makes common-sense revisions to the court process for Wisconsin's outdated expungement law and brings it in line with most of the country," they said.
Julie Grace, a policy analyst with the conservative Badger Institute, said that "Conservatives across the state support this change because it simply makes sense. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that requires a judge to rule on an expungement at the time of sentencing when very little information is known about an offender's rehabilitation. Changing the timing of that decision to after a sentence is served allows a judge to make a more informed decision."
"That language imposes a 'poverty penalty' on those seeking expungement of their criminal records and who simply do not have the resources to pay the full amount owed." – WJI President Craig Johnson
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said information about expunged offenses should not be removed from public review.
Records of expunged crimes now are generally sealed; the bill does not change that.
"This is problematic because the fact of a person's criminal conviction will not go away," he said. The Legislative Council has stated convictions will not be removed from the state Department of Justice's crime information database, Lueders said.
"In other words, employers or law enforcement officials would still be able to learn through routinely performed DOJ background checks that an individual was indeed convicted of a crime and that this conviction was later expunged," he said in prepared testimony. "But if the employer or law enforcement official wants to see the court records to learn more about the behavior that led to a charge of, say, disorderly conduct, he or she may find that these records have been sealed."
Lueders also said that information about expunged cases should not be removed from the state's online database, which is accessible to the public.
Bill proponents favor removal because they think the access leads to discrimination, he said.
"But the extent to which this occurs has never been determined, even though it has become for many an article of faith...." he said. "We believe the citizens of Wisconsin are able to make rational judgments about such matters."
Other organizations testifying in favor of the bill included the the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County; the Wisconsin Catholic Conference; the State Bar of Wisconsin; and Wisconsin Independent Businesses.
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