Twenty volunteer Wisconsin lawyers, including those pictured here, took part in the free expungement clinic on Sept. 21 in Kenosha.
Sept. 22, 2021 – An arrest or criminal conviction has serious and long-lasting consequences for people who are trying to obtain housing, employment, educational, or other opportunities. Imagine if your criminal record contained false information or inaccuracies that you did not realize.
On Sept. 21, the State Bar of Wisconsin hosted a free expungement legal clinic in Kenosha, in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin – who organized and ran the clinic – along with the Kenosha County Bar Association, the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers, and the Urban League of Racine & Kenosha.
The clinic was an opportunity for those with a conviction or arrest record, including false or inaccurate information, to learn more about their legal rights and eligibility to remove or seal that information.
The event kicked off various State Bar-related activities happening in downtown Kenosha this week, including the State Bar’s Board of Governors meeting tomorrow (Sept. 23).
State Bar Board of Governors NRLD representatives Kathryn Bullon and Erik Guenther check over paperwork before meeting with a client during the clinic in Kenosha.
At the clinic, 20 volunteer lawyers from around the state – some traveling to Kenosha from as far away as Atlanta – helped 56 clients, who attended by appointment or as walk-ins. Most of the attorneys were not criminal law practitioners, and were trained in expungement issues prior to the clinic.
Erik Guenther, a Kenosha native and president of the State Bar’s Nonresident Lawyers Division, returned to his hometown to volunteer for the clinic. “If you have the opportunity to make your community better, you should take it. This is my hometown, so it’s nice to be here as a positive influence.”
“At these clinics, lawyers directly serve low income clients to help them clean up their record and remove barriers to people getting their education or a better job,” said Jill Kastner, a former State Bar of Wisconsin president (2019-20) who participated in the clinic. She works for Legal Action of Wisconsin.
“The clinic helps people clean up their record to the extent possible under Wisconsin Law. We help people remove arrest records, correct errors on their background, and petition for expungement and pardons.”
Legal Action of Wisconsin Staff Attorney Megan Sprecher (left) talks to a client during the clinic. She is joined by State Bar Past President Kathy Brost (center) and Kenosha Bar Association Past President Heather Iverson (right).
Expungement in Wisconsin
Under current law, the ability to expunge a criminal conviction is very limited. Arrest records for individuals who are not convicted of a crime should be removed if a person is never charged or prosecuted. But records of their arrest can linger in state databases for many years.
The clinics are essential for two reasons. First, a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney does not extend to expungement issues. A pro se litigant may not know how to resolve issues alone.
In addition, it is such a burdensome process that one person attended the Kenosha clinic to seek the no-cost help – after traveling six hours to get there.
“The legal process for shortening or eliminating one’s criminal history is complex,” said Morgan Stippel of Bell, Moore & Richter, S.C. in Madison, who volunteered at the clinic. “It is important for people to have access to legal assistance when navigating this process.”
Second, Wisconsin’s expungement law, in comparison with most other states, is exceptionally narrow. “Even most one-time, nonviolent offenders whose crimes were committed decades ago are not eligible,” Kastner said. “While we do the best we can at the clinic, we have to give far too many people the bad news that Wisconsin’s narrow expungement law doesn’t include them.”
Jill Kastner of the Legal Aid of Wisconsin (standing with outstretched arm), leads a briefing for Legal Aid staff attorneys prior to the clinic.
Wisconsin’s narrow expungement laws also create disadvantages to its citizens.
“Neighboring states, like Illinois, have a far more substantial expungement law,” Guenther said. “That disadvantages Wisconsin residents, because it makes it harder for them to compete in the job market and to obtain housing.
“An Illinois resident with a similar record that is expunged doesn’t carry that same stigma. They can apply for the job in Wisconsin. It makes it harder for Wisconsin citizens to get their lives back on track.”
“These are people who may have made mistakes in the past, but have served their sentence and are striving to have a better life,” said Starlyn R.T. Miller, an attorney in Keshena with the Legal Services Department of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and a member of the State Bar Board of Governors.
“Background checks for jobs, schools, mortgage applications, among other things, can negatively impact people who made mistakes long ago. Those who qualify for expungement deserve a chance to make a better life.”
“People need to understand that if we want to get more Wisconsinites back to work, we need to reform our expungement law,” Kastner said.
More than 1.4 million Wisconsinites have a criminal record. “Having a record, no matter how old, is the single biggest barrier to getting a good job that can support a person and their family,” said Kastner.
A criminal record interferes with the ability to maintain a stable, productive life, long after the sentence is completed.
“Expungement is designed to remove that stain from someone who has satisfied the penalty society imposed on them. With easy online access to court records now, these sentences aren’t meant to be a life sentence, to make it impossible to earn a living or get a loan or an apartment,” Guenther said, “but that’s increasingly the case.”
Julie Leary (third from right) of Legal Action briefs attorneys before taking an appointment with a client. From left: State Bar President-elect Margaret Hickey, State Bar Treasurer Elizabeth Reeths, Kenosha attorney Betheny Dillhoff, Julie Leary, and Alex Silvola and Hana Osmani of Milwaukee.
Sometimes the Record is Wrong
People frequently do not know what is in their criminal history report – or even know that they have a criminal history report – until they are rejected from an employment or a housing opportunity, Stippel said.
When this happens, it is important for people to understand the options available to them, which is where the expungement clinic comes in.
“At the clinic, we help clients shorten or eliminate their criminal histories if the law allows,” said Stippel. “This includes explaining to clients what is in their criminal history reports, completing the forms necessary to correct errors in criminal history reports, and informing clients about the expungement and pardon processes.
Erik Guenther, a Kenosha native and president of the State Bar of Wisconsin Nonresident Lawyers Division, volunteered for the clinic, which was held at the Italian American Center in Kenosha.
Volunteering Is Part of Access to Justice
“I volunteered for the expungement clinic because as a Wisconsin attorney, I have a responsibility to ensure that our communities have access to the legal assistance they need,” said Stippel. “The expungement clinic presented an opportunity for me to provide this access.”
Betheny Dillhoff is a solo attorney in Kenosha, where she practices in areas unrelated to criminal defense. She stepped up to volunteer for the clinic in particular because expungement can help eliminate barriers to employment for former defendants.
“When a person is convicted of a crime and serves their sentence, we want them to become a functional and contributing member of society,” Dillhoff said.
“However, as a society, we’ve made it difficult for them to get a job, earn certifications, obtain housing, etc. If people have greater access to housing and a decent job, they are probably less likely to be a repeat offender, which benefits our community as a whole. This is why I have volunteered,” she said.
Michael Yang of Madison practices in criminal defense, including taking State Public Defender cases in addition to his private clients. He chose to volunteer at the clinic to help provide access to justice for those who can’t afford an attorney.
“It is important that we hold these clinics, because many people with these issues can’t afford to have an attorney simply review their record to see if they are eligible,” he said.