MADISON — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators is again trying to pass a bill that would allow convicts to ask judges to expunge low-level crimes from their records, drawing criticism from open government advocates who fear the proposal would seal too much information from the public.
Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, Republican Rep. Dave Steffen and GOP Sen. Alberta Darling introduced the bill during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. All three said the measure would help convicts pass employer background checks and find jobs at a time when businesses are desperate for workers. Wisconsin's unemployment rate has remained at 3 percent or lower for nearly the last year.
"We're talking about jobs. We're talking about building the workforce. We're talking about giving people a second chance," Darling told reporters.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, questioned to need to seal the convicts' records. He said officials continue to claim that criminal background checks are preventing convicts from finding jobs without any evidence.
"I wish there was some trust in the ability of the people of Wisconsin to be discerning in their judgments about the public records that they can see," Lueders said.
Currently in Wisconsin, judges during sentencing hearings can order a convict's record expunged upon completion of the sentence under several conditions. The convict must be younger than 25, the crime can't be a violent felony and can't be any more serious than a Class H felony, the second lowest level of felonies in state law punishable by up to six years in prison.
According to the nonpartisan research organization Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin is the only state where judges must make expungement decisions at sentencing rather than after the sentence is completed.
Under the proposal, if the sentencing judge doesn't order the record expunged, the convict could petition the judge for expungement upon completion of the sentence. Convicts would be allowed two requests per crime. The bill would do away with the age restriction, but the crime still couldn't be a violent felony or any more serious than a Class H felony.
If the judge orders the crime expunged from a convict's record, the physical file would be sealed and any record of the case on the state's publicly accessible online court records database would be erased. The record would remain in the FBI's national database as well as in the state Justice Department's Crime Information Bureau database, Goyke said.
The public could request the record through the CIB for a fee and employers could still find the record in the database during background checks, he said. However, the crime wouldn't be considered a conviction for employment purposes and asking a job applicant to supply information about the case would constitute employment discrimination, which helps convicts secure expungement.
Steffen, Goyke and Darling sponsored a similar bill last session. The Assembly passed a version of the legislation, but Senate Republicans refused to concur and the measure died.
Republican legislative leaders were noncommittal when asked about the new bill's chances Tuesday.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said the Assembly GOP caucus hadn't discussed it yet but pointed out last session's proposal passed the chamber unanimously. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Senate Republicans are focused on workforce development and plan to discuss the expungement proposal as a caucus in the coming weeks.