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.