« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Sanitizing C-CAP

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Big Jule in Guys & Dolls bragged that he’s an innocent man. “47 arrests… zero convictions,” he said.

We have some Big Jule’s in Wisconsin. They’re people who are in trouble with the law, although sometimes there isn’t enough evidence to convict at trial.

There’s a proposal to limit access to on-line court records in Wisconsin. Cases where charges are dropped or where a defendant is found innocent would be removed from the on-line data base. The argument in favor of shielding these records is that a charge, of which you are eventually found not guilty, could be searchable and used against you forever – each time you apply for a job, or try to rent an apartment, or apply for credit, etc.

The records themselves are public, and you can see them all if you go down to the county courthouse in person. In practice people search on-line through the state’s C-CAP site. If some records are no longer on C-CAP, they might as well not exist.

The fundamental question is who deserves the benefit of the doubt in seeing and using the data. The landlord? Or the would-be renter who’s had a run-in with the law? Or to bring it closer to home, the sketchy boyfriend? Or your sweet, innocent daughter?

Suppose you’re the decision maker --- the lender, landlord, or concerned father --- and the man you look up on C-CAP has the following record: an OWI from 5 years ago, and a disorderly conduct charge that was plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor with a suspended sentence. Is that a true picture of this person? Suppose the disorderly conduct charge actually stemmed from a domestic violence incident where he was initially charged with assault for beating his wife. Under new rules the more serious charge wouldn’t even show up in the on-line records. He could explain the “official” record as defending a buddy in a shoving match in a bar. You’d never know the difference.

Should the advantage of getting to hide the true circumstances go to the bad actor, or should the people who need information to make a good choice know about it?

Several times a year I get phone calls at the radio station from people who’ve been arrested or charged and they want us to remove news stories about their crimes. They complain that someone google-searches their name, and our news story comes up. Some of these calls include information that the charges were dropped, or they were acquitted at trial. So what. They news stories won’t be taken down. We reported, factually, the so-and-so was charged with assault last July. We’d also report, factually, that in November the same person was found not guilty. Both are accurate news accounts. Someone who calls our newsroom asking for that kind of favor is actually trying to sanitize the truth.

I once hired someone – a man in his mid 20s – who made a tremendous mistake as a teenager. He was involved in a vandalism case that caused tens-of-thousands of dollars in damage. He was charged as an adult. There was a record and it could not be hidden. He explained what happened, and explained that he was a much younger, immature person back then, and that he hasn’t been in trouble since. He invited me to call his parole officer. I did. And I decided to hire him anyway. He worked for me for a few years, then he was no longer on probation, and moved away for a better full-time job. And I’ve given him a positive recommendation.

In Wisconsin, the law says I wouldn’t be allowed to use his conviction as a hiring factor if it didn’t directly pertain to the job. That already is an unreasonable burden and risk on an employer. Under the new rules we wouldn’t even know. That’s the wrong message. The right way to handle these cases is for people to explain themselves and own up to their past. They should know that some people are forgiving and understanding. Others are not. But they all have a right to know.

Chris Conley

Image: Archive enterprises, files, books of record via WikiCommons.com