We know that, in our new era of divided government in Wisconsin, Democrats and Republicans aren’t always going to see eye to eye on an issue. We do, however, expect them to strive to find common ground on important issues where possible.
A bipartisan group of legislators took a step toward meeting that expectation last week.
On Jan. 29, Republicans and Democrats in the state Assembly and Senate unveiled a bill that would increase the ability of low-level offenders to virtually erase their criminal records, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
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 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 state 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.
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.
We’re not immune to Mr. Lueders’ concerns. Like him, we are vigorous advocates of government in sunshine, and we’re wary of the possibility of expungement being used to advance a political agenda, or to conceal government activity from the public.
But we also want to see people who made a poor decision earlier in life, and have made amends for that decision, be given an opportunity to demonstrate their desire to become, or resume being, productive members of society.
We think this legislation is an opportunity to improve lives in Wisconsin. We’re glad to see Republicans and Democrats come together to make it happen.