By Alexandria Staubach
In theory, Wisconsin law currently permits expungement of certain felony and misdemeanor convictions. In practice, expungement is rare and difficult to obtain.
Senate Bill 38/Assembly Bill 37 could change that. Iterations of the bill were introduced, but failed, in past legislative sessions. However, SB 38/AB 37 has broad, bipartisan support. (WJI discussed details of the bill in a previous post here.)
“We are hopeful we can reach an agreement soon, pass the bill through the Senate, onto the Assembly and Governor's desk,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), an advocate for expungement and a co-sponsor of the bill. “What we’ve been able to do with expungement is cultivate and continue to work with a broad and bipartisan coalition that doesn’t traditionally work together. My hope is that this can be an example of what can move criminal justice reform forward in Wisconsin.”
A criminal conviction has implications far beyond the conviction itself. Collateral consequences include licensing exclusions that prohibit whole categories of employment, limits on voting, inability to access educational loans, and limits on public benefits.
Expungement of a criminal record results in a conviction being sealed from public records.
Bill sponsor Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton) stated in testimony to the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that expungement allows “people who have served their time . . . to fully contribute to their communities, without the discrimination of having an, albeit minor, case open to public record.”
Current law is highly restrictive, and the practical effect is that very few people qualify, says Natalie Lewandowski, clinical director of the Milwaukee Justice Center’s Expungement/Pardon Mobile Legal Clinic.
The current law permits expungement for an offense with a maximum penalty of six years, as long as the offense is not a violent felony, the person was under 25 years old and had no prior felony record, and the person requested expungement at the time of sentencing. A later court may then grant a request for expungement after the person has successfully completed their sentence. In 2020, the Court of Appeals held that even minor, technical violations of community supervision rules will bar expungement.
In its Spring 2023 session, the Expungement/Pardon Mobile Legal Clinic assessed 60 convictions for expungement. Of those convictions, only four were found eligible for expungement, and zero were successfully expunged. Two of the four requests were denied due to probation revocations, one person ultimately failed to meet the age requirement, and one person owed a balance on court costs and fines.
To date in its Summer session, the clinic has assessed 16 convictions and found only three qualified for expungement. Only one of the three was found eligible at a hearing, but expungement was nevertheless denied because of an earlier probation revocation.
The pending bill eliminates the under-25 age requirement — the most exciting and expansive component, says Lewandowski. She is optimistic that SB 38/AB 37 will significantly expand access and result in more successful outcomes for clients.
The clinic estimates that roughly 87% of individuals who previously obtained pardons through the clinic would now be eligible for expungement if the legislation is adopted.
The bill also eliminates the requirement that the person must have asked for expungement at the time of sentencing. A sentencing court would retain its ability to grant or deny expungement, but the person could petition for expungement after successfully completing their sentence even if the matter was not addressed.
Under the bill, if a petition for expungement is denied, the person could file again after two years and payment of $100. Only one expungement per person would be permitted, and a person could petition just twice per crime.
The new SB 38/AB 37 specifies additional offenses that are ineligible for expungement, including traffic crimes, criminal trespass, criminal damage to a business, and violation of restraining orders in domestic abuse cases.
The bill would apply the changes retroactively to convictions that occurred before adoption.
A 2020 Cato Institute study of data from Michigan found that petition-based expungement policies resulted in only 6.5% of eligible individuals receiving expungements in the first five years of eligibility, people who receive expungements tended to have very low rates of recidivism, and expungement recipients exhibited better employment outcomes quickly.
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