Julie Grace's testimony on expungement law reform

On March 19, 2019, Badger Institute policy analyst Julie Grace testified in Madison before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee in support of Senate Bill 39. Read the transcript of her presentation below.
► Watch a video excerpt of her testimony.

Chair Wanggaard and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today in support of Senate Bill 39, which will make necessary reforms to Wisconsin’s expungement law. I am a policy analyst for the Badger Institute, and our research on this issue has shown that a few elements of the current law render it ineffective.

Specifically, in 2017 we released a report titled, “Black Robes & Blue Collars,” which examined how the state’s existing expungement statute is being used in practice. We looked at more than 10,000 expunged cases with almost 21,000 different counts or charges filed in Wisconsin between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 14, 2017. We found that the prevalence of expungement varied based on an offender’s age, county and race.

For instance, Milwaukee County had over three times the number of charges eligible for expungement than Outagamie, La Crosse or Kenosha counties during the period we examined. Yet, Milwaukee, with 506 total expungements, had fewer than these other counties, which had 640, 623 and 579 expungements, respectively.   

Disparities exist elsewhere in the state, too. Washburn and Burnett counties each have about 15,000 residents and virtually identical household income and poverty levels. Yet during the period we studied, Washburn had 124 expungements, while Burnett had five.

These disparities and others we included in our report reveal that the current law contains a crucial flaw: Judges are asked to make a determination regarding eligibility at the time of sentencing instead of at a later date when evidence of a defendant’s rehabilitation would be more apparent.

We believe that decisions regarding expungement eligibility should be made after offenders serve their time and are given the opportunity to prove themselves eligible through good behavior. Not only will this allow judges to consider a defendant’s post-sentencing behavior, it will also allow defendants to petition for expungement further from the chaotic time of prosecution.

We understand that judges – not bureaucrats – will continue to make these decisions, as it should be. But judges need better information and the ability to make informed decisions at a more appropriate time. The basic reforms included in this bill will equip judges to make better-informed decisions and will likely lead to more consistent application of the expungement option statewide.

The Badger Institute has also addressed Wisconsin’s expungement laws as part of the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Coalition – a group of organizations working together to research and advance common-sense criminal justice reform in Wisconsin. In our recommendations booklet, which was released this past October, we identify solutions that we believe will decrease taxpayer expenditures on corrections and increase public safety.

We found that Wisconsin is in good company. Other states, including Indiana, Montana, Tennessee, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, North Dakota and Texas, have reformed their expungement laws.

We also determined that an arbitrary age restriction should not be a factor in determining whether a low-level offender deserves a second chance. The current age restriction simply obstructs many nonviolent, one-time offenders from the same opportunity given to those of a younger age.

Expungement for low-level offenses is ultimately a pathway to employment. The Badger Institute is encouraged by the reasonable and common-sense reforms in this legislation. We look forward to continuing to provide research and analysis that will hopefully contribute to future criminal justice reforms that reduce costs, protect public safety and put people to work. I am happy to answer any questions related to our research on this topic.

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