Individuals who have been found not guilty in court or whose charges have been dropped could have their cases permanently removed from the state’s searchable online database under a controversial proposal.
The bill to alter Wisconsin Circuit Court Access records was introduced by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and passed through the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor with a 5-0 vote last week.
The legislation has seen sharp criticism from media groups, including the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the MacIver Institute and the editorial boards of Wisconsin’s two largest newspapers, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said in an interview with The Badger Herald the bill “would turn the system into an incomplete repository of information,” making it nothing more than a register of known offenders.
Proponents of the bill, including Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center; Sen. Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee; and Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, have said the bill is important, as it protects individuals from unjust discrimination in job and rental applications based on their records, whether charges were dismissed or not.
Under Wisconsin law, it is illegal to discriminate based on a criminal record during hiring, unless the offense is directly related to the duties of the job.
Harris said in a statement the bill strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the privacy of individuals while protecting the public’s access to court records.
“In our justice system, an individual is innocent until proven guilty. This bill protects that tradition and recognizes that individuals who are found not guilty of a crime are regularly discriminated against in society,” Harris said.
In a joint statement released by the MacIver Institute and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, condemned the bill, saying the Legislature should be looking to incorporate more information on the site rather than less.
CCAP currently displays limited information on court cases and does not include information such as juvenile records or witness information.
“We believe the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make appropriate judgments about cases that are dismissed or lead to not-guilty verdicts,” Lueders said in the statement. “They don’t need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.”
Harris said in Milwaukee, property managers hold criminal records against individuals, and the bill would allow individuals to move on with their lives without being “stigmatized for having a ‘not-guilty’ verdict on their record.”
Lueders said this argument holds little weight, as there is minimal evidence showing individuals are discriminated against for ‘not-guilty’ or dismissed cases.
“We don’t dispute that there are occasions where this information is used to deny people opportunities, but I don’t think that it is used abusively. There is no evidence of that,” he said.
Lueders added most employers and property managers are not actively “scouring” CCAP, looking to discriminate against people, but on the contrary would much rather accept the individual’s application.