The following is testimony delivered by Badger Institute President Mike Nichols on proposed reforms to Wisconsin’s expungement statute.
The testimony was submitted to members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety regarding Senate Bill 38 on April 18, 2023.
Wisconsin’s current expungement statute is flawed.
It forces judges to make poor decisions with limited information, encourages uneven and often nonsensical administration of justice, and does little to help employers, victims, or low-level, non-violent offenders we should all want in jobs rather than cells.
Our 2017 white paper, Black Robes & Blue Collars: How to Let Wisconsin’s Judges Help Job-Seekers and Employers (reissued in 2019 after WPRI became the Badger Institute), is based on our analysis of more than 10,000 expunged cases and 21,000 different counts and charges.
It lays out the often misrepresented and misunderstood facts. Violent criminals are not eligible for expungement right now – nor should they ever be. No defendant is eligible for consideration if he or she has a prior felony condition – nor should they ever be. The vast majority of cases currently expunged are misdemeanors or involve charges for which the defendant was found not guilty. This is exactly as it should be.
So why is reform needed?
- Common sense says that the decision on whether to make a defendant eligible for expungement should be moved from the time of sentencing to a point after the offender has served that sentence. The current law forces some judges to guess and encourages others not to use the tool at all.
- Limiting expungements only to individuals who committed an offense when they were 24 years old or younger is arbitrary. Removing that limit, it is important to note, does not remove judicial oversight. Judges, who typically are more lenient with younger offenders, still will have the final say. At the same time, a better statute will allow judges to consider the cases of adults who long ago erred but have proved themselves to be good citizens.
- The prevalence of expungements varies greatly by county. For instance, Milwaukee County has more than three times the number of charges in the expungement-eligible crime categories than Outagamie, La Crosse or Kenosha counties do, yet it has fewer total expungements than any of them. Whole years go by in some smaller counties, meanwhile, without a single expungement granted. Giving judges more complete information about defendants at a later point in their lives may help even out disparities between judges and counties.
You will find a copy of our report, Black Robes & Blue Collars, on our website, www.Badgerinstitute.org under the “Issues” tab and “Crime & Justice.” We encourage legislators to reform the existing statute in a way that helps judges, victims, employers and citizens who erred in minor ways but have proved themselves deserving of a second chance.