Supporting expungement reform

Workforce development is the number one issue facing Waukesha County, the Milwaukee 7 region and our state. With record-low levels of unemployment in Wisconsin and an aging workforce, employers and workforce leaders recognize that criminal justice reform can improve both the labor market and life outcomes for people with criminal records. Supporting programs that assist targeted populations, such as those with a criminal background, to enter or re-enter the workforce can widen the pool of available candidates. Expungement provides non-violent offenders with a fresh start. Wisconsin already has expungement, but we believe the existing law needs to be reformed, and as such, are supporting Senate Bill 39.

On September 19, the Alliance submitted the below letter in support of expungement reform to state legislators representing Waukesha County:

Workforce development is the number one issue facing Waukesha County, the Milwaukee 7 region and our state. An Alliance survey found that more than 85 percent of Waukesha County employers plan to expand their workforce in the next three years, yet 82 percent are unable to find enough qualified workers. The Alliance is committed to developing, identifying and supporting policy solutions that strengthen our region’s talent pipeline.

With record-low levels of unemployment in Wisconsin and an aging workforce, employers and workforce leaders recognize that criminal justice reform can improve both the labor market and life outcomes for people with criminal records. Supporting programs that assist targeted populations, such as those with a criminal background, to enter or re-enter the workforce can widen the pool of available candidates.

Expungement provides non-violent offenders with a fresh start. Expungement means sealing a criminal record if the judge finds that the offender will benefit and society will not be harmed. When an eligible criminal record is expunged, it becomes sealed from public access records, such as Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, used by many employers to screen potential employees. This enables people with non-violent criminal backgrounds a fresh start after they’ve paid their debt to society. Currently, expungement in Wisconsin is only eligible to those who have committed a non-violent crime no greater than a Class H felony and have no previous felonies. We believe those parameters make sense and should stay in place.

However, other aspects of Wisconsin’s current expungement law need reform. For example, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that requires judges to determine expungement eligibility when somebody is sentenced, instead of when they are released. This is the only time that expungement is possible in Wisconsin. In other words, judges are asked to decide whether expungement is appropriate very soon after the crime has been committed, rather than a year or more later, when the defendant’s rehabilitation (or lack thereof) is more readily apparent. Wisconsin is also one of a few states that limits expungement eligibility to offenses that occur before age 25.

In Wisconsin, nearly 1.4 million adults have a criminal record, including 42 percent of Milwaukee’s job seekers. Ex-offenders often experience “collateral consequences” that haunt them well after they have paid their debt to society. Many vocational licenses cannot be obtained by individuals with criminal records, yet those vocations are often the jobs for which ex-offenders are most qualified. Additionally, it’s harder for ex-offenders to get home loans, go to college or join the military. Without access to these building blocks of financial independence and stability, they become stuck in a cycle of recidivism and dependence on public assistance.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ex-offenders who are employed are three to five times less likely to reoffend. Prison academic and vocational programs have been found to reduce recidivism by up to 13 percent, and trade or job training programs increase the likelihood of post-release employment by up to 21 percent. And the pathway to employment after release can start with expungement.

The Alliance supports Senate Bill 39 (Pathways to Employment Act). This legislation makes common-sense revisions to the court process for Wisconsin’s outdated expungement law and brings it in line with most of the country.

The Alliance has a broad and diverse membership representing everything from sole proprietorships to some of the largest employers in the region from a variety of industries. Our 1,200 member organizations represent more than 75,000 employees and the number one issue these businesses deal with is finding employees. We feel expungement reform is a important piece of the workforce development puzzle that helps move us in the right direction.

Sincerely,

Suzanne Kelley
President & CEO
Waukesha County Business Alliance