A Fresh Start

Wisconsin’s Atypical Expungement Law and Options for Reform

June 2018


In Wisconsin, an estimated 1.4 million individuals have criminal records, which may pose a major impediment to securing a job. Our latest report considers expansion of expungement opportunities as one strategy to remove obstacles for jobseekers. We examine Wisconsin’s expungement law and compare it with similar laws in other states. We also present possible changes for state policymakers to consider that could expand access to expungement, and we analyze their potential impact on case eligibility.

Key findings:

  • Wisconsin’s expungement law contains several uncommon features relative to those in other states. Our review found no other state where judges are required to make expungement decisions at sentencing (rather than after sentence completion) and where closed (past) cases are not eligible for expungement. In addition, Wisconsin is among a handful of states that limit expungement eligibility only to young offenders (under age 25) and that do not expunge cases that end in acquittals or dismissed charges.
  • Modifying any of the atypical features of Wisconsin’s expungement law could increase the number of eligible cases substantially. Allowing individuals to petition for expungement of closed cases or allowing individuals age 25 and over to be eligible for expungement would have large impacts on case eligibility. Enabling individuals to expunge cases that result in non-convictions also could have a large impact and could address a fairness issue. Allowing more felonies to be eligible for expungement likely would have a relatively small impact on case eligibility.
  • Expanding access to expungement would have workload and fiscal implications for state and county governments in Wisconsin that would need to be carefully managed. Shifting expungement decision-making until after sentence completion or expanding eligibility could result in increased demands on state courts and county clerks of court offices. Depending on how the law is structured, such changes also could affect other parts of the criminal justice system, including district attorney and public defender offices.

Media Coverage

"Residents struggle to overcome state’s tough expungement laws" [1]Milwaukee NNS
"Amending Wisconsin's Expunge Law Could Boost State Workforce, According to Report" [2]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Are criminal records impacting the workforce?" [3]WEAU 13 News
"New Report Explores Wisconsin's 'Atypical' Expungement Law" [4]WUWM Lake Effect
"Can Wiping Criminal Records Grow Wisconsin's Workforce?" [5]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Wisconsin's criminal expungement rules keep needed workers out of jobs, study says" [6]Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Job Shortage Spurs Talk Of Second Chances At Expungement Forum" [7]Wisconsin Public Radio
"Expungement Reform: ‘Every Sentence is a Life Sentence’" [8]Door County Pulse
"Wisconsin lawmakers seeking to expunge marijuana convictions" [9]StarTribune
"‘I'm still discriminated against': Wisconsin lawmakers propose easing burdens on marijuana offenders" [10]Channel 3000
"Wisconsin lawmakers propose a bill to alter expungement process" [11]News 9 WAOW
"Lawmakers consider clearing some criminal records" [12]WBAY-TV
"County Board to consider resolution on criminal record expungement bill" [14]The Journal Times
"Wisconsin Needs to Expand Expungement of Old Criminal Records" [15]Shepherd Express
"In Wisconsin, bipartisan expungement reform struggles to find the finish line" [16]The Daily Cardinal
"Common-sense legal reforms could put more people to work by clearing certain convictions" [17]Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Expunging old, low-level convictions is difficult in Wisconsin. A bipartisan reform could be on the way" [18]Milwaukee Journal Sentinel