A bi-partisan group of four Wisconsin lawmakers unveiled a criminal justice reform proposal today aimed at making it easier for formerly convicted people to become employed. WORT spoke with 3 of those legislators to find out more.
The bill would reform an already-existing process called expungement. It’s a petition a person can make to have their records of low-level convictions removed from employers and the public eye.
Under current state law, judges can order an expunged record for nonviolent crimes below a Class H felony if an individual has no previous felony convictions. But it also has to be done before the person is 25 years old and can be only done at the time of sentencing
Representative David Steffen, a Republican from Howard, is one of the legislators who unveiled the bill proposal today. He says Wisconsin’s current laws are out of date in comparison to other states.
“The state of Wisconsin was actually the very first state in the country to offer expungement,” he said. “However, since those dates in the 70s, it has done very little to upgrade and improve and evolve with its expungement language.”
The bill would take away some of these restrictions. It would allow judges to order expungement after sentence completion and remove the age limit. And it would also ensure that the fact a person has expunged records does not prohibit someone from obtaining a professional license in Wisconsin.
Steffen says he’s spoken constituents who want to provide for their family but get fired from work do to past convictions, and this bill provides an opportunity to help these people
“As a Republican, shoot as an American, I want everyone to have that opportunity to be employed to support their family, that’s really what we should all be striving for,” he said.
This is not the first time a bill on expungement has been introduced. Steffen says versions of the bill have passed in the Assembly for the past four years, but couldn’t get the votes in the state Senate. Just last session, a nearly identical bill failed in the Senate.
But as the bill has been reintroduced time and time again, lawmakers say it’s gained more support. Representative Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee, is another of the proposal’s co-authors. He says he’s seen how the current system has kept people from seeking expungement from his time spent as a Milwaukee County public defender.
“It’s taken time to really elevate the issue, it’s something that not really many people know about,” said Goyke. “And we’ve made it a bipartisan issue. This is a bill ushered by Republican legislators and Democratic legislators together.”
Recently elected Senator Kelda Roys, a Democrat from Madison, also co-authored the proposal. She says the hard work put in over the years has brought together a bipartisan coalition of government agencies, employers, and political groups
“This is a bill that brings together state prosecutors and defense attorneys and the state bar of Wisconsin and the Courts,” she said. “Its supported by the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity. These are not groups that generally think in lockstep.”
While the bill has failed before, Steffen, Roys, and Goyke expressed high optimism over bipartisan support. Steffen says a new strategy is being approached; starting the bill in the Senate instead of the Assembly to give the Senate more time. He’s more optimistic this time around, as he says the recent election has removed conservative members who were concerned over the bill and introduced new allies.
“The makeup of the senate through elections, to be quite frank, has made it a more fertile opportunity for us to get this passed this time around,” he said.
WORT was unable to reach Republican Senator Alberta Darling from River Hills, the fourth person behind the proposal. In today’s press statement, she agreed with her fellow legislators about the bill, saying it will help hardworking people who made a mistake long ago.
Steffen, Roys and Goyke all say the bill would directly affect the lives of people with former, low-level convictions.
“The more people learn how expungement can help address racial disparity created by our criminal justice system and address the employment woes that are facing our state and our employers,” said Roys, “this bill is really a Win-Win.”
The proposal is currently circulating for co-sponsorship and is expected to be introduced in February.