Guest Column from Rep. Nick Milroy
When former governor Scott Walker was in office, he refused to grant pardons to anyone, regardless of the circumstances of their crime. I am pleased that our current governor, Tony Evers, has granted a good number of deserving individuals a pardon since taking office because he believes in second chances. So do I.
Another form of second chances in our courts is expungement of one’s criminal record. Much different from a pardon, an expungement is ordered by the court to “seal” a case, basically setting aside the criminal conviction and making it inaccessible to the public, unless reopened under a court order.
Under current law, an individual may only have their criminal record expunged if their crime was no greater than a class H felony, their crime was not a violent felony, they were 25 years old or younger at the time of the crime, and they had not been convicted of a previous felony. Current law also requires that a judge can only make a person eligible for expungement at the time of sentencing.
Expungement provides a much-needed clean start for those who committed a minor, non-violent offense but have learned from their mistakes and are prepared to live their life as a productive, law-abiding member of society. For Wisconsinites who fall under this category, an expunged record can help change the trajectory of their lives by removing obstacles to employment, education, and housing.
Some people might believe granting an individual an expungement means letting them off easy. This is not the case. The individual must serve the full sentence handed down by the court for the crime committed. Expungement is an option for an individual to change their life for the better, moving away from the path of the criminal justice system. This, of course, can only benefit them when it comes to finding a job. Like it or not, many employers will not hire someone with a criminal record, regardless of how minor the offense was. The same holds true with housing. In all likelihood, a landlord will choose the individual and their family that does not have a criminal record.
By giving people a second chance with an expungement, we provide an avenue for them to move forward by removing obstacles that often lead to re-offending. This leads to broken families, more costs to the taxpayers, and more people living as a burden to society. With all that being said, Wisconsin’s expungement law needs to be improved.
Wisconsin is the only state in which judges are required to determine if a person is eligible for expungement at the time of conviction rather than after the person has served their sentence. By not allowing judges to consider the growth and development of a person who has been convicted of a minor offense, our state laws are creating unnecessary barriers for individuals who are trying to live productive lives. In addition, if a person is not aware that they must petition for an expungement at the time of sentencing, current law does not allow for them to ever request one.
Another serious issue with current expungement law is that the existing age limit of 25 is arbitrary. Mistakes can be made at any age. Expanding access to expungements for individuals over the age of 25 will prevent more Wisconsinites from being punished for the rest of their lives over minor, victimless offenses. More expungements mean less unemployment across the state, less of a burden on the criminal justice system, and more individuals who are able to support their families and give back to their communities.
I am happy to be a co-author of a bipartisan legislative proposal introduced to address the issues with Wisconsin’s current expungement law. If enacted into law, companion bills Assembly Bill 69 (AB 69) and Senate Bill 78 (SB 78) would remove the condition that a person must have committed a crime before age 25 to be eligible for an expungement. It would also provide people with the opportunity to file a petition for their record to be expunged after the completion of their sentence. AB 69 and SB 78 limit a person to one expungement and would retroactively apply to people who were convicted prior to the bill taking effect. These bills do not change the current requirements regarding the severity of the crime or number of offenses. These proposals are currently in the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety and the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, respectively, awaiting a public hearing.
As we look for ways to lower Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, get our economy back on track, and make our communities safer for all, we must consider how expungements impact Wisconsin for the better. Our communities suffer when we make the choice to keep individuals down rather than lift them up. Ensuring that people who are eligible for an expungement are knowledgeable about how to apply for one before it is too late is a big piece of the puzzle. Updating our expungement law so they are more accessible remains the ultimate goal.
I am hopeful that AB 69 and SB 78 will become law so we can begin giving more Wisconsinites who are willing to turn their life around a second chance.