By most measures, Marlena Rucker has a solid resumé: a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a certificate in web design and completion of a real estate program through Marquette University.
She’s consistently held a job since earning her degree from UW-Parkside two decades ago. For the past five years, she’s worked at a Milwaukee church, where she recently was promoted to facilities coordination manager.
But it’s not what Rucker had in mind for herself. While she enjoys her work, she struggles to make ends meet and relies on government programs to provide for herself and her daughter.
The reason, she says, is a 1996 forgery she committed when she was 22. While she completed her sentence and hasn’t committed a crime since, the conviction has haunted her for 23 years.
“I didn’t realize how one felony would keep me in a box for the rest of my life,” she told the Badger Institute.
The Pathways to Employment Bill, bipartisan legislation to reform Wisconsin’s expungement law, would give Wisconsinites with nonviolent convictions a second chance through expungement—essentially, the sealing of a public record.
Expungements are granted for Class H felonies and below and are based on a judge’s discretion. The bill would remove from current law the arbitrary age limit of 25 and allow judges to rule on eligibility after time served.
Requiring judges to rule on eligibility at the time of sentencing is unique to Wisconsin and prevents judges from making informed decisions later in the process when evidence of an offender’s rehabilitation is more apparent.
A criminal record—even for a one-time, nonviolent offense—can affect employment, housing, financial aid eligibility and more.
Rucker has been offered good-paying jobs only to have the offers rescinded after employers perform background checks.
She recalled one such instance in 2003. While waiting to confirm travel arrangements for job training, Rucker was informed that the employer had to rescind the offer due to her record.
“On my drive home, I remember I thought about turning my car into a wall, I felt so defeated. No one would have ever known,” she recalled.
Expungement is a workforce issue, says Steve Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
“Reforming our expungement system is one tool to help get unemployed and underemployed talent off the sidelines and into the workforce,” said Baas, MMAC senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.
“We simply cannot adequately fuel Wisconsin’s booming economy for the long term if we allow this deep pool of human dignity and potential to go untapped,” he added.
One of the bill’s authors, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, agrees.
“If an individual has served their time and paid the price and is leading a crime-free life, it’s important to allow them to go forward,” Darling said. “Having a job is the biggest indicator that one won’t recidivate—which is a huge cost to an individual and the taxpayers.”
Another co-author, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, is encouraged by broad bipartisan support for the bill.
According to a recent Marquette Law School poll, 65% of Wisconsinites support allowing offenders to petition judges to expunge their record for nonviolent offenses.
“These people want to be contributing, productive citizens,” Taylor said. “The only thing stopping them from fully using their value is their conviction.”