Proposed expungement law would mostly help misdemeanants

By JULIE GRACE | April 28, 2021

Eighty-seven percent of people who would qualify for an expungement under proposed legislation have never committed anything more serious than a misdemeanor, according to new data from the Badger Institute.

The legislation would remove the arbitrary 25-year-old age limit in current state law, essentially making anyone with a nonviolent Class H or I felony (with no previous felonies) or a misdemeanor conviction, regardless of age, eligible to have his or her case removed from public record.

Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that currently limits expungements based on age at the time of the offense.

About 35,000 people a year who are 25 years or older and have no prior felonies commit expungement eligible offenses, the Badger Institute found.

Roughly 24,000 of that total are people who commit misdemeanors. Another 6,600 are individuals who had a misdemeanor charge reduced to a forfeiture and, therefore, were never found guilty of a criminal offense. The remainder would be individuals who committed a lower- level felony.

Most felonies are not eligible for an expungement. Badger Institute analysis determined that roughly 4,500 lower-level Class H or I felonies are committed every year by people 25 or older who now would be eligible but only if they have no prior felony offense.

The proposed changes do not mean that every eligible case would ultimately be expunged. Previous Badger Institute research found that the number of expunged crimes — currently around 2,000 a year — is a small percentage of the total number of eligible crimes.

As is the case now, Wisconsin residents would continue to be eligible for only one expungement in their lifetime and the decision would continue to rest solely with judges, who must determine whether the individuals who apply will benefit and whether society will be harmed.

Proponents of the new legislation say it would help ex-offenders find and keep jobs, secure stable housing and become productive members of society.

In addition to eliminating the age restriction, the bill would allow a judge to determine expungement eligibility after a person completes his or her sentence rather than at the time of sentencing — an important change supported by nearly three-quarters of Wisconsin voters, according to a recent Badger Institute poll.

The legislation has broad bipartisan support. A similar version passed the Assembly last session.

Julie Grace is a policy analyst in the Badger Institute’s Center for Opportunity.