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View from around the state: Avoid temptation to seal court records

— From the La Crosse Tribune

Imagine the horror of being wrongly imprisoned for a heinous crime you didn’t commit. In Wisconsin, that has happened to an estimated 40 people in the past 25 years.

In addition to setting the person free, how much financial compensation will the state provide for that crushing error? The maximum is $25,000 — an embarrassingly low amount.

A bill that has passed the Assembly and will be considered in the Senate would increase the payout to $50,000 a year, to a maximum of $1 million, plus provide additional assistance to the wrongly convicted.

While the state could never truly return those years behind bars, the additional compensation is long overdue.

Sadly, there’s a component of the legislation that we can’t agree with — and it’s troubling on more than one level.

The legislation would require the court to seal all records of the criminal case involved in the wrongful verdict and remove records from the state’s online court records database if the wrongfully convicted person requests it.

While that may seem like the fair thing to do, it is not. It isn’t fair to the victim. It isn’t fair to the rest of us.

Our judicial system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have.

Mistakes happen. Juries and judges can get it wrong. And, with the increasing use of sophisticated technology, new evidence can change the result of a case.

We should all have the right to know about and examine the cases in which errors occur. Democracy can be a messy business. Having the ability to openly scrutinize that public business — regardless of the branch of government — is a crucial tenet of democracy.

Let’s also consider the person who was wrongly imprisoned. On the surface, sealing all records of the criminal case may seem like a humane approach.

The legislation allows “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.”

But after all the publicity involving a criminal conviction, what happens if the person can’t refer a friend or a prospective employer to the court record — either in the court file or the digital record through the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, known as CCAP, to prove that the conviction was in error?

You can’t expunge all of the information about the conviction from Internet searches, so why would you seal the record that proves innocence?

Why doesn’t the state — in bold words listed on court records and on the online court files — let everyone know that the person was wrongfully convicted of the crime and has been released from custody because of the error?

That truly is the most humane way to treat the person who was wrongly convicted. And it’s the most transparent way to admit that justice isn’t always accurately served.

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