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by Iuscely Flores, Wisconsin Examiner
January 9, 2023

This story also appeared in Wisconsin Examiner

Republicans and Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature are working together to make it easier to clear your criminal record (expungement). They are seeking co-sponsorship of LRB 0955/1, which would update decades-old legislation and give millions their freedom back.

According to the Sentencing Project, “between 70 million and 100 million — or as many as one in three Americans — have some type of criminal record.”

In Wisconsin, 1.4 million people have a record, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The long-lasting effect of these criminal records hinders a person’s ability to access employment, a professional license, or even housing.

Republican Rep. David Steffen (foreground) at a 2020 meeting of the Assembly Health Committee (Photo by Melanie Conklin)

The current process of expungement is costly and complicated. Most people are not aware that they have to ask for their record to be expunged at the time they are being sentenced before a judge. Wisconsin is the only state where past and closed cases are not eligible for expungement. It is also among the handful of states that do not allow expungement for cases that were dismissed or acquitted.

Two of the bipartisan co-sponsors, David Steffen (R) and Evan Goyke (D), said in a statement: “Wisconsin’s current expungement procedure was written in the 1970’s and hasn’t been substantially modified since. The current practice is cumbersome for criminal justice system professionals and lacks clarity to individuals that do receive expungement and the employers they work for. This bill creates a new, more effective and efficient process that has been crafted with input from a wide set of stakeholders.”

The bipartisan support for this expungement reform extends to outside groups, as the bill is also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Koch family’s Americans for Prosperity — two organizations that rarely see eye to eye.

State Rep. Evan Goyke at a September 2022 meeting of the Joint Finance Committee.(Screenshot | WisEye)

The proposed changes would eliminate the state mandate on judges to grant or deny expungement at the time of sentencing, provide employers and employees with clarity in regards to criminal background disclosures, clarify that only low-level offenders are eligible for expungement, define what it means to successfully complete a sentence, and lastly remove the arbitrary age limit of 25. Only law enforcement and other Wisconsin government agencies would have access to a person’s records, and it would open a path to many who have had to rely on co-signers for housing or who could not qualify for state licenses to expand their careers.

As Wisconsin looks for ways to lower unemployment rates and give people a second chance, expungement reform is one large piece of that puzzle. This current reform is a common-sense revision, and the people who will largely benefit have been historically under-represented. It’s time that they get a fair shake so we can help move Wisconsin forward.

Co-sponsorship Memorandum for expungement

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