The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an Action Alert on AB-460, a bill whose main purpose is to raise the compensation level for state victims of wrongful imprisonment. The bill unanimously passed the state Assembly on Tuesday.
Our concern is with how the bill would affect public access to case recordsmuch more significantly than has beeen publicly acknowledged. The bill as passed would not just require the removal of information on wrongful convictions from the state's online records system, or WCCA, as The Associated Press reported in October. It would actually completely shut off access to court records related to wrongful convictions.
According to the Legislative Reference Bureau analysis, "Under the bill, if a person's conviction for a crime is reversed, set aside, or vacated on grounds consistent with the person's innocence, and the person is ordered released from prison by a trial court, the court is required to grant the person, upon request [remedies including] sealing of all records related to his or her conviction."
The actual bill language calls for: "Sealing of all records related to the case. Records sealed under this section shall be accessible to the person but may not be available for public inspection or through the consolidated court automation program case management system."
This is a sweeping and radical requirement, one that will dramatically compromise the ability of media and the public to examine what went wrong in cases in which things are known to have gone terribly wrong.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council opposes any reduction in public access to court records of wrongful convictions. As the Wisconsin State Journal noted in a Dec. 18 editorial , which assumed that the impact would be only to online court records:
"Rather than hiding its terrible mistakes from the public, the state should add information to electronic public records so it’s perfectly clear the individuals were victims, not criminals. It’s important for citizens to know their state justice system sometimes gets verdicts wrong."
Such concerns are greatly magnified when applied to all court records regarding wrongful convictions. The Council calls on advocates for open government to oppose this effort to protect the perpetrators of wrongful convictions from accountability. We urge that the Senate remove or amend this language, if and when it takes the bill up.