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Madison Journal: Keep public court records public
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Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, and Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, agree that Senate Bill 526 would greatly restrict the amount and type of information found on the state’s online court information system.

“SB 526 is a horrible idea and a step in the wrong direction,” said Healy. “Instead of trying to take public information off of the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) website, the Legislature should be looking for ways to incorporate more public information on the site.”

SB 526 would greatly restrict what public records are available on the WCCA website, or CCAP as it’s called, and thus dramatically undercut the site’s usefulness. Records showing that charges against an individual were dismissed or led to a finding of not guilty would no longer appear.

“Under this bill, WCCA would go from being a tool for tracking what happens in our state court system into being a registry of known offenders,” said Lueders. “Only the names of those found guilty would appear.”

Healy and Lueders agreed that if there is abuse of this information by employers and others to deny individuals opportunities, the state should look at ways to address that problem, not undercut an important tool for tracking what happens in the state’s court system.

Recently, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which includes the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Associated Press, testified against SB 526.
The Council opposes the idea that the way to deal with a perceived problem regarding the use of public information is to make it harder to obtain that 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,” said Lueders. “They don’t need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.”

“With all of the important issues left for the Legislature to deal with in the closing days of the session, legislators should not waste any more time on SB 526,” said Healy. “Wisconsin needs more transparency, not less.”

SB 526 passed a Senate committee Thursday 5–0. The bill is now available for a full Senate vote. Sen. Dale Schultz (R–Richland Center) is one of the bill’s five sponsors. Schultz is also a cosponsor of a similar bill, Assembly Bill 685.

Without a doubt, some employers and others use the information on this system to unfairly deny opportunities to applicants. But there is no evidence this practice is as widespread as the site’s critics claim, Lueders said. Representatives of business groups and landlord associations have offered credible testimony attesting to their commitment to following the law and using this information in appropriate ways. Some employers and landlords post job openings and put up “For Rent” signs because they actually need workers and want tenants, not simply so they can turn people away due to a dismissed charge from long ago.

“Passage of this bill would be a boon for private providers of court records data, those companies that offer to run background checks on people for, say, $10 a pop or $30 for full access each year,” said Lueders. “And those private operators do not have the same checks on accuracy as does the state’s system.

“If this bill were to pass, WCCA would henceforth give a distorted view of what happens in our courts. For instance, every prosecutor would have a 100 percent conviction rate on every charge, because charges that were dismissed would not appear. It would mean that most of the charges brought against former members of the Legislature, like Sens. Brian Burke (D–Milwaukee) and Chuck Chvala (D–Madison), would disappear from view. It would also shield from public view past charges against individuals like Radcliffe Haughton, who went on a shooting spree in 2012 in Brookfield, killing three people and wounding four. Haughton was charged before then with criminal disorderly conduct, but the case was dismissed.”