Plan To Purge Records From Court Access Website Earns Some Praise

Joint Finance Committee Republicans Introduced Plan Thursday Evening


Advocates for changing the juvenile justice system say they’re happy about a provision approved by the state’s budget-writing committee that calls for purging some criminal records from the state’s court access website.

The provision would remove records for people charged with nonviolent felonies that carry penalties of six years or less if the charges are dismissed before the case goes to trial. It only affects charges filed against people 25 or younger. Jim Moeser of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families said too often employers and landlords use these records to deny housing or jobs.

“Many of them are never convicted, but people look at them as if they were. And they still stay on that person’s record, and that’s true for these … younger people. So the fact that they made it age 25 and it could be retroactive, it looks like, is I think pretty positive,” said Moeser.

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Open records advocates — including Attorney General Brad Schimel — oppose the move, saying all court actions should remain public.

Said Schimel: “The provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”

Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said when the criminal justice system disrupts someone’s life by charging them with a crime, government shouldn’t be able to make the incident just disappear.

Advocates for purging the records of dismissed charges say the provision, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t go far enough. Jim Moeser said that as written, it appears to leave the purging decision up to a judge.

“What if there are judges who aren’t willing to do that? Then what are we saying about how this is going to apply equally across the board?” he said.

Moeser said it would make much more sense to simply remove the records, regardless of whether a court has ordered it. He said Pennsylvania recently passed a law that avoided the problem by simply removing all records of dismissed charges in such cases from public records files.

Regardless, both critics and supporters of the records purge say the provision doesn’t belong in a last-minute budget bill amendment. Bill Lueders said it appears none of the stakeholders on either side of the issue had an opportunity to weigh on the costs and benefits of such a change.

It’s still not clear whether the provision will be approved by the full Legislature.