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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013

CCAP’s Criminal Records Are the Official State Blacklist

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As someone who’s spent a career in journalism, I know exactly what my position should be on access to public records about criminal and civil violations of the law. Public records are public.

As a fairly decent human being who cares about reducing widespread racial discrimination and the denial of equal opportunities, the answer isn’t quite so simple.

That conflict is once again stirring in the Legislature over what might be called the state’s official blacklist, otherwise known as CCAP.

CCAP stands for Wisconsin’s Consolidated Courts Automation Programs. In the past year, the state’s free, public website has had nearly 8 million visitors.

Until the state launches its own porn site, CCAP will remain far and away the government’s most popular Internet venture. That’s because CCAP contains every Wisconsin court record involving you and everyone you know: arrests, convictions, tickets, fines, jail time, real juicy stuff.

Even if you had no idea your state was spreading all that embarrassing information about you, it already may have affected your life.

That’s because the heaviest users of CCAP are landlords and the human resources departments of any company where you have ever applied for a job.

That’s what makes the public records available on CCAP so potentially dangerous. And it also should create an extra responsibility upon the state not to include anything on its website that can be easily misunderstood or misused.

And, boy, are those things there. That’s because the site includes arrests and charges even if you were found innocent or the charges were dropped without ever going to trial.

Someone who’s done nothing wrong can be denied employment because of a crime they didn’t commit for which they never should have been arrested.

Even clearly labeling charges as dismissed or ending in acquittal doesn’t remove the damage done by publicly attaching them to an individual’s name. Most people are ready to assume guilt whenever anyone is arrested, regardless of the outcome.

That certainly includes someone screening employment applications looking for any reason to throw out as many as possible to reduce the size of the pile.

 

Discrimination Is Illegal

But what if the charges are accurate? What if someone were convicted of a crime and incarcerated? Then, employers should have access to state records and could legitimately use that information as a basis for denying employment, right?

Actually, no. It’s against the law in Wisconsin to discriminate in hiring against anyone with a criminal record unless the crime is directly related to job duties, such as a bank hiring a convicted embezzler.

Employers would be breaking the law if they did that. But, of course, the state would never prosecute or include such criminals on its official state blacklist.

That’s odd since illegally denying people legitimate employment to support their families is far more destructive to the state, its economy and our overall wellbeing than most of the petty crimes that appear on CCAP.

Many other states have passed “ban the box” laws forbidding employers from even asking about criminal records on applications. That at least gives qualified job applicants a chance to explain in an interview who they are now instead of being automatically rejected for past mistakes.

Attempts to reform CCAP over the years have included Democratic bills aimed at keeping charges off the website until they’re proven and limiting the lifelong discriminatory impact of old records to a certain number of years.

The primary reform currently being considered by Republicans in control of the Legislature is telling. It would be limited to protecting the reputations of those ordered to pay financial judgments in civil cases. Records would be removed from CCAP after eight years.

It sure sounds like Republicans are most interested in protecting their own white-collar constituents rather than the overwhelming majority of ordinary folks who suffer a lifetime of discrimination as a result of arrests or convictions long past.

You can never separate race from criminal justice in Wisconsin. The state has the highest rate of incarceration of black males in the country, nearly twice the national average, according to the UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute.

Even though Wisconsin’s black population is only about 6%, its prison population is almost 50% African American.

The state’s CCAP blacklist doesn’t just reflect that egregious racial disparity. It perpetuates it.

The state encourages both street crime and white-collar crime by preventing ex-offenders from gaining legitimate employment and aiding and abetting illegal discrimination by employers.

Yes, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate in hiring against anyone with a criminal record. But just in case employers want to illegally discriminate, be sure to check CCAP.

I still think public records should be public. That means government is not permitted to withhold them from anyone who wants to search through them.

But in the Internet age, the state doesn’t have to create its own official state blacklist.

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