Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society. It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences. To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief. Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.
In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction. As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.
Last month the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in State v. Lemere that the Sixth Amendment does not require defense counsel to advise a client that a conviction for a pending charge of sexual assault could result in future commitment proceedings under chapter 980. The case could be appropriate for certiorari review in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, since it reflects differing views in state high courts.
In an unusual case involving judicial failure to warn about the immigration consequences of a guilty plea, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that the likelihood of inadmissibility (as opposed to deportation) was sufficient to set aside three guilty pleas entered more than a decade before. State v. Valadez, 216 WI 4 (Jan. 28, 2016). The decision suggests that it may be possible to challenge guilty pleas years after the fact, in any jurisdiction where a statute or court rule requires the court to warn about immigration consequences before accepting a guilty plea.
As part of budget deliberations, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Commitment approved a provision that would allow courts to remove records of certain dismissed charges from the computerized statewide records system.
Under current law, although certain conviction records of youthful defendants may be expunged, anomalously dismissed charges remain accessible. The new provision would allow a judge to order removal of a record from the internet site if all charges have been dismissed; all charges carried a maximum penalty not exceeding six years of imprisonment; none of the charges were classified as violent crimes; and the charges were filed before the defendant attained age 25. These are the same criteria that apply to expungement of youthful convictions.
People who would benefit from the change include people whose only contact with the criminal justice system was a case that was ultimately dismissed after they went through deferred prosecution or a first offenders program.
The new law would apply retroactively, thus allowing individuals to apply for removal from the website of charges dismissed before the effective date of the provision. The redaction of records would apparently apply only to records accessible on the website, not to court records accessible through the local clerk of court, nor to arrest records accessible through law enforcement agencies.
The state budget still awaits approval by both houses of the Legislature and by the Governor, who has broad authority for line-item vetoes.
A local office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender recently assisted two former clients who encountered obstacles with their respective legal and medical careers (minor details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality). These examples show that old criminal cases, even for relatively minor charges, can cause employment difficulties and frustrate professional advancement many years later.
The first former client recently passed an out-of-state bar examination, and he disclosed on his license application a 20-year-old Wisconsin misdemeanor charge. When he called for assistance in interpreting the online court records, he learned (to his relief) that what he had always thought was a criminal conviction had actually been reduced to a non-criminal ordinance violation. Although the original criminal charge remains accessible in Wisconsin’s court records, he was able to amend his license application to report that he does not have any criminal conviction record. (It is not clear what effect a misdemeanor conviction would have had on his licensure, but now he won’t have to find out.) Read more
No, according to a recent study of efforts to enforce monetary judgments in a Milwaukee municipal court and to a national organization with expertise in traffic safety. The Justice Initiative Institute reviewed non-criminal, municipal cases from 2008-2013 in which the Milwaukee court had ordered the detention of defendants for not having paid fines.
Not surprisingly, the report shows that most people who fail to pay fines have little if any income (a majority of those detained were unemployed). Therefore, although the prospect of sanctions might encourage payment by a population with greater financial resources, the use of incarceration for non-payment ends up costing the City of Milwaukee more than any additional amount of fines collected.
Expulsion or suspension from school, not surprisingly, does not bode well for academic success. Students are much less likely to graduate when they miss significant time in school or have to change schools because they have been suspended or expelled.
Incidents at school can have other serious and lasting consequences. In Wisconsin, because 17-year-olds are considered adults when charged with criminal violations, high school students can face probation, jail, or prison, as well as all the adverse collateral consequences associated with a criminal record. One serious consequence unique to students is that alleged misconduct in school can also result in a suspension or expulsion from school.
A recent issue of Governing Magazine reports that pardoning is “making a comeback” after decades of neglect. It would be nice if it were true.
But the evidence of comeback is thin. Almost all of the jurisdictions where pardoning is thriving today are the same ones where it was thriving a decade ago. In a dozen states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota, pardon has never been neglected, much less abandoned by responsible officials. In these jurisdictions and a handful of others, pardon has deep roots in the justice system and is supported by accountable institutions of government.
It is certainly true that Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California have made generous use of the power of their office after years in which the pardon power in their states languished unused. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is a newcomer to the small group of governors who evidently feel that pardoning is a responsibility of office. All three are to be commended for it. But three swallows do not make a summer.
The Wisconsin statute that allows courts to expunge certain conviction records of youthful offenders, Wis. Stat. § 973.015, provides that the court must make its decision about whether to expunge at the time of sentencing, conditioned upon the defendant successfully completing his or her sentence.
Often, young defendants receive a probationary term for crimes that are eligible for expungement (all misdemeanors, as well as certain felonies in the lower levels of severity). Prior case law has established that, although expungement is conditional upon successful completion of probation in this situation, the court may not defer ruling on the expungement request.
In State v. Hemp, the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified that expungement occurs automatically if the statutory conditions are met, and that a defendant is not required after completing probation to apply to the sentencing court for entry of the expungement order. Importantly, the court also provided some guidance regarding the legal effect of expungement that will be of interest to job applicants who have had a previous conviction expunged.
An earlier post highlighted the dilemma that some young Wisconsin defendants face because of the narrow scope of the law on sealing conviction records. The court can seal the record of certain convictions, but the record of dismissed charges remains accessible to the public in a searchable online database. Therefore, the dismissal can increase the potential for prospective employers to learn of an applicant’s legal troubles.
Now the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has held that the court may not seal the record of a non-criminal violation. Kenosha County v. Frett, 2014AP6 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 19, 2014). The appellate court reviewed the statutory language and concluded that references to 1) the maximum term of imprisonment for sealable offenses; 2) “completion of the sentence”; and 3) “certificate of discharge” from the “detaining or probationary authority” showed that the procedure applies only to criminal convictions.
For a young woman cited in 2012 in Kenosha County for underage drinking, now a college student in New York, the decision means that the record of her conviction for the amended charge of littering remains publicly accessible. If she had been convicted of drug possession or fraud she might have been able to close the book on this episode.
Although the Frett case did not involve the reduction of criminal charges, the decision means that some defendants might prefer to have a sealed criminal conviction than to have a public record of a reduced, non-criminal charge (the public record of the reduced charge also shows the original charges).
The Frett decision may be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and policymakers are considering statutory amendments to expand judicial authority to seal records. For now, however, non-criminal dispositions and dismissals are publicly accessible in situations in which some criminal convictions can be sealed.