April 16, 2021 – Six years ago, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors adopted a policy position to support legislative efforts that would expand the ability of certain people to expunge court records. It based this decision on compelling studies demonstrating that mere contact with the criminal justice system can result in long-term, significant detrimental impacts on people seeking employment or housing. Since then, the State Bar has lobbied in support of common-sense legislation that would achieve this goal.
What You Can Do: State Bar of Wisconsin Advocacy Network
State Bar members are encouraged to send a message to their lawmakers expressing support for expungement reform using the Advocacy Network. The pre-written email message is editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for a state budget that prioritizes access to justice.
This short video on the importance of expugement reform is perfect for sharing on social media. You can also subscribe to the Rotunda Report and follow us on Twitter to stay informed and get involved in the legislative process.
On April 7, 2021, State Bar President Kathy Brost and President-elect Cheryl Daniels attended the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety to testify in support of Assembly Bill 69, a bill that would make common-sense changes to Wisconsin’s restrictive expungement law. AB 69, and companion Senate Bill 78, were introduced by Senator Darling (R-River Hills), Senator Roys (D-Madison), Representative Steffen (R-Green Bay) and Representative Goyke (D-Milwaukee). Both bills enjoy robust bipartisan support with a long list of co-sponsors.
President-elect Daniels began the testimony focusing on changes that AB 69 would create to allow judges more flexibility to grant an expungement after a sentence was completed. Wisconsin is unique in that it is the only state in the nation that requires expungement to be requested at the time of sentencing.
Daniels related how a judge “…might really think now that I don’t believe this person deserves it. But people have shown that they can turn their lives around.” Instead, she said, “giving the court the option of saying ‘let’s wait and let this person prove themselves’ is the better option…As the State Bar, we feel that these are excellent amendments to the law that we feel are very important.”
Over the years, many different bills have been proposed and debated by the legislature on the topic of expungement reform, but none have been passed into law. Daniels ended her testimony stressing that the State Bar is in full support of AB 69. She said “we are very grateful that the committees are taking this up again…and we really hope that it will, this session, be completed.”
President Kathy Brost was next. Her testimony took a personal approach, relating a story about a family member and their classmates’ experience during a high school party that led many of the students receiving a drug possession charge for marijuana. “They were all there, they all did it…this was minor offense they were charged with, municipal ordinance violation, it was a misdemeanor. All they had to do was pay a fine…but if they did that, they would have a drug possession charge on their permanent record, forever,” Brost explained.
Many of the participants at the party hired a criminal defense attorney who helped them navigate the process, pay the fine, and request an expungement for the offence, which they were granted. She related how her now 25 year old family member and many of his classmates are now very successful in life and has a clear criminal record.
She then compared that to the experience of other young people from her community who were charged with the exact same crime at the same time in life, but didn’t request or receive an expunged record. She related how one young woman, burdened with a drug possession charge, was only working part-time and still living with her parents. “It’s really hard to overcome that, if the first thing you look at shows this drug conviction charge. A lot of people won’t rent to them – a lot of people with a drug conviction charge – and a lot of people won’t hire you.”
President-elect Daniels finished State Bar testimony by addressing a legislator’s concern about a deluge of applications for expungement if the bill was passed, potentially burdening the legal system. Daniels said that “one of the things that the lawyers are standing ready and willing to do is to help people with expungements as they need to be…we want to be part of that solution, to help people, to actually help the courts…”
How AB 69 and SB 78 Would Change the Law
Wisconsin’s current expungement law allows a person to petition for an expunction of a criminal record if their crime carries a sentence of six years or less (Class H and I felonies), was non-violent, was committed under the age of 25, and the person has no other convictions. AB 69 and SB 78 were written to build upon lessons learned from previous efforts to reform expungement law, and reflect that in the comprehensive changes they propose. Those changes would:
Eliminate the state mandate on judges to grant/deny expungement at the time of sentencing. This would allow judges to postpone decisions on whether a case deserves expungement to after a sentence is successfully completed, bringing Wisconsin in line with other state laws.
Ensure that, for employment purposes, an expunged record does not prohibit an individual from obtaining a professional license in Wisconsin.
Clarify what it means to successfully complete a sentence to include completing community services, paying all fines, fees, restitution, and completing any community supervision without revocation.
Remove the age limit of 25. Wisconsin is one of only four states to have an age limit. This bill removes the age limit in order to focus on individuals that have successfully completed their sentence and have not re-offended.
The bills do not make any changes to current law regarding the types of crimes that are eligible for expungement – eligibility would remain restricted to non-violent, one-time offenses that are Class H felonies or below.