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A Felony Doesn’t Have to be Forever

| August 3, 2017

What if a felony conviction did not mean a lifetime of dealing with collateral consequences?  Senator Leah Vukmir and Representative Joe Sanfelippo are pushing legislation, Senate Bill 57 and Assembly Bill 91 that creates an option for courts to amend felony convictions to misdemeanor convictions.  In cases of low-level felonies, defendants can ask the court to leave the door open to having the conviction reclassified as a misdemeanor after the sentence is completed.

The mechanics are simple. For qualifying offenses, the defendant (or the state) may ask the court to remove the felony designation one year after his sentence is completed.  Before the court decides, the defendant is treated as a felon.  The court is required to consider a variety of factors including the potential harm to society and the potential benefit to the defendant.  If the judge determines the reclassification of the felony to a misdemeanor is appropriate, the defendant no longer has to face the life-lasting burdens that come with a felony conviction.

The consequences of a felony conviction can be wide reaching.  The right to possess firearms is taken away for life.  The ability to get government benefits, including student loans, can be deeply impacted.  Most importantly, a felony conviction can adversely affect the ability to get a professional license consequently shutting the pathway to many types of employment.

Of course, there are other options for removing felony convictions.  A pardon would have the same effect, but a pardon is an extreme measure and removes the conviction entirely.  An expunction (a court order physically sealing the court file), arguably, could have a similar effect as it pertains to employment but does not remove all consequences.  The firearm prohibition would still remain and the direct effect on employment applications is muddled.

The rationale for this bill is to acknowledge an in-between approach might be most appropriate in some cases.  A judge concerned about the collateral consequences of a felony but who is also concerned that the criminal act should not be expunged or completely removed from the record, is likely to see SB 57 and AB 91 as a useful tool to motivate offenders with significant rewards.

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THOMAS LYONS entered the legal field after receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from Marquette University. Working in offices in Kewaunee and Sheboygan Counties, Tom’s practice focused primarily on criminal defense, juvenile, and mental health law. Switching to the world of policy, Tom started as a legislative aide to a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, followed by a State Senator, and for a brief time Governor Scott Walker before joining Right on Crime on 2017.

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