I had the honor of working as a volunteer lawyer at the
expungement clinic in September hosted by the State Bar of Wisconsin in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin – which organized and ran the clinic – along with the Kenosha County Bar Association, the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers, and the Urban League of Racine & Kenosha.
Twenty volunteer attorneys served more than 50 clients and focused on three issues: 1) clearing arrest records, 2) identifying convictions that qualified for statutory expungement, and 3) identifying candidates for pardons under Gov. Tony Evers’ current policy.
Criminal records can cause long-term “collateral damage” to a person’s life, far greater than the sentence itself. The damage includes obstacles in many important areas such as employment, occupational licenses, housing, and public benefits.
As a private solo criminal defense attorney who takes public defender clients, I am limited to addressing the direct legal punishment a defendant may get for a conviction.
While a judge may address expungement of a specific conviction “at the time of sentencing” for some younger, low-level offenders, the public defense lawyer’s representation does not cover the collateral consequences of false or inaccurate information on criminal records.
In many situations, a person might be indigent. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that organizations such as Legal Action of Wisconsin and the State Bar sponsor these types of clinics. They are often the only option available to people who need help clearing their criminal records.
One client traveled six hours to Kenosha for the clinic because such an opportunity was not available locally. We must provide more of these clinics across Wisconsin, especially now in an era when we can hold virtual clinics that can reach out to so many people. However, it is up to us, the lawyers of Wisconsin, to conduct these clinics.
At the clinic, I had success in helping some clients, yet I was constantly frustrated with the narrow parameters for a conviction to qualify for statutory expungement. I had to tell many clients that their convictions did not qualify for expungement simply because they were over 25 years old when they committed the offense.
I have had too many clients over age 25 who have never had a prior criminal incident, much less a conviction, but who were convicted as felons for using a controlled opioid. They lost well-paying professional jobs and had difficulty getting any new job.
They had families to support. Granting expungement to these people would remove a major obstacle on an already difficult path to redemption. This is why expungement reform is a vital issue that the State Bar is zealously advocating as a priority.
So, I ask you my fellow attorneys to please consider volunteering for expungement clinics and other pro bono programs. Pro Bono Week is this month (October 24-30). If you can assist even one person, you have taken a true step to achieve our goal of providing access to justice for all.
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» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 72 (October 2021).