Wisconsin Circuit Court Access
The other day, The Capital Times ran a breathless front-page article by freelancer Ben Popper. The piece was sprinkled with assertions, all offered without a shred of evidence, that employers and landlords are routinely using the state's online court records system -- Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, or WCCA -- to discriminate against people with criminal pasts.
(Actually, the article misidentified this website as CCAP, as people often do. CCAP is a parallel system maintained by county clerks, not the online offering.)
According to this article, former prisoners trying to get their lives back on track "often find that employers will dismiss applicants with a conviction out of hand, and finding that information has never been easier." It quoted David Lopez of the city of Madison's Department of Civil Rights calling the availability of these records "really dangerous."
In fact the story, subtitled "Hostile Attitudes, Online Records Don't Keep Ex-convict from Succeeding in Society," was about how an ex-con named Jerome Dillard managed to land jobs despite his record. These were at first low-paying dishwasher and telemarketing stints, but they were obtainable, even before Dillard landed a good job with Madison Urban Ministries.
Popper argued that Dillard's case is an exception to the rule. But perhaps it shows that the "rule" really isn't as binding as some people claim.
In my role with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, I have served on state committees that set policy for WCCA. Again and again, these committees have been presented with assertions that employers and landlords are far more interested in discriminating against people with criminal pasts than they are in finding employees and tenants. But, to date, I've never seen a single verifiable example.
A couple of years ago, Rep, Marlin Schneider, a member of one of these oversight committees, told the horror story of how a local elected official -- the mayor of Darlington, he thought -- had nearly been politically destroyed by charges that he had engaged in criminal activity. In fact, the person who committed these crimes was a different person with the same name.
Something didn't seem right to me about this story. Wouldn't the easy availability of online records be useful in helping the good mayor prove his innocence? Wouldn't they help him show that the real culprit had a different date of birth and a different address?
That afternoon I called the mayor of Darlington, who had no idea what I was talking about; no such thing had happened to him. I relayed this to Rep. Schneider, who testily informed me that he thought it was Darlington but wasn't sure. The story had come to him second-hand from another lawmaker. I contacted this other lawmaker for more information, but received no reply.
More recently, I served on a Legislative Council special committee looking into the issue of expungement -- literally obliterating all trace of a past criminal conviction. Again we heard horror stories. A representative of Legal Action of Wisconsin told of one man who was purportedly fired by a company that had employed him for 25 years after it learned he had a drug conviction that predated his employment.
Does this make sense to you? Why would a company dump a good employee after a quarter century over something as plainly irrelevant as a mistake in his distant past?
But few people, least of all the editors at The Capital Times, seem to question such assertions. Fewer still question whether some ex-cons may have trouble getting jobs because they lack work skills or don't present themselves well, as opposed to mindless bigotry.
In fact, employers throughout Wisconsin are legally barred from denying employment based on criminal records, unless the offense is substantially related to the job. In other words, you can keep a convicted embezzler from working at a bank, but not from being hired as a laborer.
Yes, online court records do make it harder for people to escape their pasts. But the solution is not to deny other members of the public the ability to easily obtain this information -- which, in the age we live in, is easier said than done.
Rather, the solution is for people everywhere to do what they have been advised to do all of their lives, in school and in church: to have mercy on their fellow human beings, to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and be willing to give others a second chance.