Jessie Opoien | The Capital Times
A free service launched this week by a Madison-based group will help Wisconsinites with eligible past infractions get them removed from their criminal records — with the goal of removing barriers for those seeking employment or housing.
LIFT Dane — a partnership between Legal Action of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Employment and Training Association of Dane County — launched its Legal Tune Up tool Tuesday. The tool searches multiple public databases to identify legal issues that might come up during a background check. If any of those records are eligible for removal, the program can help people through the process.
"It' snot just an economic boon," said LIFT Dane director Marsha Mansfield of the ability to clear criminal records. "It's a psychological boon."
The concept of a "second chance" can have a strong, positive psychological impact "on people feeling like they have the ability to do something with their life, because they’re not burdened with these charges from old cases that didn’t amount to anything that constantly come up when they’re applying for a job or housing," Mansfield said. An estimated 1.4 million people in Wisconsin have criminal records.
To use the Legal Tune Up program, users enter their first name, last name and date of birth to allow it to scan public databases for criminal records, eviction records, suspended drivers licenses and child support orders.
If the tool finds records eligible for removal — including dismissed charges and arrest records when no charges were filed — it guides the user through the next steps in having them cleared. Legal Tune Up scans databases maintained by the state court system and by the state Department of Justice.
The platform is the product of a competition called "DreamUp Wisconsin," led by the UW's Institute for Research on Poverty. LIFT Dane was one of two groups to secure funding in 2019
The launch of the record-clearing tool comes as a bipartisan group of state lawmakers renews its push to expand expungement availability for nonviolent crimes, after previous efforts have failed to gain traction.
Under the legislation, introduced by Reps. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, and Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, more people would have the ability to have their records expunged, but the scope of crimes eligible for expungement would not change.
A June 2018 report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum found that Wisconsin's current expungement law is stricter than all of its neighboring states, aside from Iowa. Key among the differences in Wisconsin law are its age limit and its requirement that judges make expungement decisions at the time of sentencing.
"Research has shown that (expungement) makes a huge difference economically to people," Mansfield said. "They become more employable, and they also can better support their families then. When somebody’s working, they have money to contribute to the economy, they have money to take care of their families, they have money to pay for child care. So it has a really important trickle-down effect."
As more people become vaccinated and the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, lawmakers are debating how to address a worker shortage in Wisconsin. The state's current unemployment rate is 3.9%, compared to 3.1% in March 2020 before the coronavirus hit, and 14.1% in April 2020. The U.S. average is 6.1%.
The Wisconsin Policy Forum analysis suggested that "reforming Wisconsin’s expungement law could reduce the prevalence of a common employment barrier among the state’s shrinking pool of unemployed jobseekers."
LIFT Dane supports the Steffen-Goyke expungement bill, Mansfield said. The group is also hopeful that, if the Department of Justice sees how many people use the Legal Tune Up tool, it might implement a policy to automatically clear eligible records.
Currently, Legal Tune Up offers additional features for Dane County residents — including connections to employment and training services — but LIFT plans to eventually expand the services it offers to residents throughout the state.