Gov. Jim Doyle’s proposed budget bill includes a provision to greatly expand expungement of criminal convictions. Under current law, expungement (including the complete purging of records) is available only for persons who are convicted of misdemeanor offenses committed before they reach age 21. The proposed change would make a person eligible for expungement up until age 25, and for non-violent felonies as well as misdemeanors.
For whatever reason, this provision in the budget bill escaped the attention of the media and others until quite recently; the State Journal ran a story on it Tuesday. The Joint Finance Committee approved the provisIon last night, after rejecting various motions to remove or amend it.
The council feels that this provision is bad public policy. We urge you to report on and editorialize against it.
* It is a major policy initiative with little or no fiscal implications included into a state budget bill. Whether or not it was the intention of the governor to slip this past with minimal notice, that is what has in fact occurred.
* It would expand a category of records that are destroyed, making it impossible to know, for instance, whether a person arrested for a given offense has committed a prior offense of a similar nature — information that’s arguably important for charging and sentencing.
* Since charges and convictions would be publicly available in circuit court files and the online records system (Wisconsin Circuit Court Access) until the person is deemed to have satisfactorily completed his or her sentence, this would allow private collectors of such information (“Criminal History Check: $9.95”) to market themselves as offering more complete information than is available from the state. This would be a boon for them, but this information would not be subject to the same controls and mechanisms for ensuring accuracy, as is the state’s records system.
* The governor and others are making the presumption that this change is necessary to prevent employers and others from discriminating against those who have committed youthful indiscretions. In fact, the state of Wisconsin has perfectly good laws that restrict employers from discriminating against applicants based on criminal convictions that are not substantially related to a given job. This expanded expungement option feeds into the notion that it is acceptable to discriminate against people whose convictions are not expunged.
* A Legislative Council Committee was pulled together in 2006 to study the issue of expanding expungement. That committee included state lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and academics. The group’s consensus recommendation, which did not advance, was that expungement be expanded but changed, to remove criminal convictions as a matter of law but not purge records. Thus individuals could truthfully answer “No” to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” and there would be a record proving their conviction was dismissed. If this proposal passes, private providers will keep records of the conviction, but not necessarily the dismissal.
For quotes, feel free to contact Bill Lueders at (608) 251-5627 or Peter Fox (608) 283-7620.