Subscribe | E-Editions | River News 75 | Super Shopper - FREE | About Us | Contact Us | FREE Classified Items Under $50
The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Flanders Realty Group

home : opinions : opinions
April 25, 2019

4/13/2019 7:30:00 AM
YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW: Don't purge records of expunged cases
April Barker
Wisconsin freedom of information council co-vice president

Wisconsin legislators are looking to reform current law governing the expungement of criminal records.

Among other things, SB-39 would allow those convicted of crimes for which the maximum term of imprisonment is six years or less (including some felonies) to ask a judge to expunge their convictions even if they fail to do so at the time of sentencing, as is currently required.

It would also allow those older than age 25 at the time of an offense to request expungement, and expressly provide that an expunged record cannot be considered a conviction for purposes of employment. The standard under present law would be carried forward, which lets judges grant expungement if they determine "that the person will benefit and society will not be harmed."

The rationale for the bill, which has broad bipartisan support, is to give those who have made minor mistakes a fresh start, including supposedly enhanced employment opportunities. It is one of several current proposals to expand the availability of expungement. Gov. Tony Evers has called for expunging convictions for individuals convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana, and legislators are looking to allow expungement for first-offense drunken driving.

Currently, when a case is expunged, the court file is sealed and the record removed from the state's online court records system, Wisconsin Circuit Court Access program. Supporters of these bills consider this removal of records an essential component of expungement. (Last year, in a similar vein, the director of state courts implemented a policy removing, after two years, dismissed criminal cases from WCCA.)

While the goal of assisting people in moving past their pasts is laudable, we would do well to remember the words of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who wrote, "Experience teaches us to be most on our guard ... when the government's purposes are beneficent."

Wisconsin's open records law declares that denying access to information about the actions of government is generally contrary to the public interest. That may be especially true when the information being removed involves the actions of law enforcement agencies and courts, both of whom are entrusted with great powers that are subject to abuse.

The goal of erasing criminal convictions for those who are deserving can be accomplished without removing records from public view. Employers already may not legally discriminate in hiring unless the circumstances of the conviction "substantially relate to the circumstances" of the job, or in other similarly limited instances.

Proponents of removing information assert that people are frequently denied employment because of minor or long-ago criminal convictions. But in fact, the vast majority of people with criminal convictions do manage to find work. The state has 1.4 million people with criminal pasts, according to one group pushing for expungement reform; the state's unemployment rate is 3 percent, or about 94,000 workers.

Ceding the right to know what our government is doing is a slippery slope that has no identifiable stopping point. The denial of access to information about government activity unquestionably undermines our ability to know what our government is doing and has done.

In this case, there is little empirical evidence supporting the reasons for limiting access, however honorable the government actors' intentions may be.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a group dedicated to open government. April Barker, the Council's co-vice president, is an attorney with Schott, Bublitz & Engel of Brookfield.

Article Comment Submission Form
Please feel free to submit your comments.

Article comments are not posted immediately to the Web site. Each submission must be approved by the Web site editor, and meet the comment guidelines (see "Comment Guidelines" at right). There may be a delay of 24-48 hours for any submission while the web site editor reviews and approves it.

Note: All information on this form is required. Your telephone number and email address is for our use only, and will not be attached to your comment.
Submit an Article Comment
First Name:
Last Name:
Anti-SPAM Passcode Click here to see a new mix of characters.
This is an anti-SPAM device. It is not case sensitive.

Advanced Search
search sponsored by

Subscription Login

Today's Circulars
Print-N-Save Coupons
Order photo reprints

Advertising Information

Community Connections
Submit to Newspaper...

Ced Vig's books for sale
Kris Gilbertson's 'I Recall...'


Facebook | All Things | Wisconsin Lottery | The Lakeland Times - affiliate | Winter Road Conditions | Snow/Trail Conditions

The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC
232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361

Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121
Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce

Site Design and Content | Copyright 2019 1up!

Software © 1998-2019 1up! Software, All Rights Reserved