Photo of Wisconsin statue "Forward" by James Steakley.
Leave it to the state of Wisconsin to take even the most high-minded and admirable legislation and find some way to screw it up.
A bill to boost the amount of compensation to persons who have been wrongfully imprisoned passed the state Assembly on Feb. 9 on a vote of 98-0. Everyone agreed the state’s current cap of $5,000 per year, to a maximum of $25,000, is woefully low; the bill would increase that to $50,000 per year, to a maximum of $1 million.
But raising the cap for people whose lives are shattered by wrongful convictions, sometimes due to police and prosecutorial misconduct, is not all the bill would do. Another provision would allow the wrongfully convicted person to request the “sealing of all records related to the case” to everyone else. Judges would be required to honor such requests.
That means the media and public could potentially be deprived of information on cases in which it is known that something went terribly wrong.
For instance, if this change had been in place following Steven Avery’s 2003 exoneration for a sexual assault, for which he spent 18 years in prison, he would have sole power to decide whether the court files of his conviction would be open to public view. Avery, whose story has drawn recent international attention as the result of a Netflix documentary series, was subsequently convicted of murder.
But Steven Avery is not the only person who has a legitimate interest in these records. The media has a right to see how the justice system screwed up, on behalf of the taxpayers who pay for everything from the police work that led to his conviction, to his court trial, to his years of wrongful incarceration.
The legislation was on a fast-track to Senate passage. But suddenly, on Feb. 16, the bill was pulled from a scheduled vote, after alarms were sounded about its potential impact on court records.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said “the recent increase in public scrutiny on the topic intensified some of the concerns that our members had with the proposal throughout the process.” She said the bill “is certainly still under consideration” for the Senate’s planned session in mid-March, but only after additional discussion.
Let’s hope that discussion focuses on the need to keep court records open to all, especially in cases where the courts have made terrible mistakes. Consider the alternative: prosecutors who know a court file contains evidence of official misconduct could agree not to oppose a wrongfully convicted person’s effort to secure release—provided that the person agrees to promptly request the sealing of the file.
Our available court records should reflect our actual court realities, including the fact that the justice system sometimes acts as an instrument of injustice. We must resist efforts to allow courts to exercise their vast powers—including the ability to deprive people of their liberty—in secret.
Bill Lueders is president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and associate editor of The Progressive.