The Wisconsin State Assembly recently passed AB 69, a bill that would expand eligibility for the expungement of past criminal records and begin chipping away at the vast array of obstacles constructed to lock people with past convictions out of mainstream life. 

In the United States criminal legal system, an individual’s previous criminal conviction doesn’t simply go away once they’ve completed their sentence. Criminal records live on well after a person has done their time, functioning as a penalty that follows people forever as they navigate a world in which meaningful opportunities for growth and self-improvement are closed off to them. 

In Wisconsin, approximately 1.4 million people have a criminal record, which can result in many collateral consequences that can make successful re-entry a daunting task. People often struggle mightily to land a stable job, secure housing, access public benefits, get an education, and more.

A Wisconsin Watch report cites statistics from the Prison Policy Initiative which found that while 93% of formerly incarcerated people between the ages of 25 and 44 actively seek work, they are five times more likely to be unemployed than the average American. Taking into account the scope and scale of our criminal legal system, mass joblessness among the 1.4 million Wisconsinites with a criminal record has profound implications for our economy. 

A recent study by The Brennan Center For Justice indicates that individuals who have criminal records -- which accounts for one of every five Americans -- have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 370 billion dollars in combined wealth, with Black and Brown people suffering most severely. That means we are actively preventing billions in potential earnings from being spent back into local economies, a massive missed opportunity, especially for communities disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. 

But the inability to get out from under a past conviction doesn't just weaken our economy, it makes us all less safe. Research has found that joblessness is the single most important predictor of recidivism, so it is no wonder, then, that about half of all formerly incarcerated people return to prison within a few years. If we truly aspire to build a safer society, we cannot allow a criminal record to trap people in poverty, unemployment and housing insecurity, or leave them to languish under other desperate circumstances.

Expungement expansion has gained bipartisan support in part because it seeks to address these harms by allowing more people to free themselves from their convictions. The bill would specifically do away with the current provision that a person must have committed their crime before turning 25 years of age, allowing older individuals to qualify for relief. It also seeks to provide people with the opportunity to file a petition in court to have their records expunged, and would classify attempts by employers to consider expunged records in the hiring process as discriminatory and unlawful. 

While the legislation certainly does not go far enough in reforming the expungement process, it is a step in the right direction that will allow Wisconsinites to move forward unencumbered by the constraints and stigma of a record. For people who deserve a second chance, for the sake of our economy, and for all of our safety, we urge the Wisconsin State Senate to pass Senate Bill 78 and deliver it to the governor’s desk.

This blog previously cited the statistic that 93% of formerly incarcerated people were actively seeking work. It has been corrected to clarify that 93% of formerly incarcerated people between the ages of 25 and 44 were actively seeking work.