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Our View: No need to change court access system

We live in a day and age when information is coming at us from many directions. The danger is that many people may not recognize when a source of critical information is in danger of being silenced.

Such is the case in the state of Wisconsin where a group of senators are sponsoring a bill to “rob” the state’s online court records system of information about criminal cases. The Wisconsin Circuit Court Access system -- known as CCAP – makes information available to the public on all cases entered into the court system.

Senate Bill 526, sponsored by Senators Grothman R-West Bend, L. Taylor D-Milwaukee, Schultz R-Richland Center, Harris D-Milwaukee and Risser D-Madison, would purge the state's online court records system of information about criminal cases that do not lead to convictions or are overturned on appeal.

This is a serious attempt to deprive the public of full and accurate information about the state's court system through CCAP. It is on the fast track to passage despite opposition from Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcast Association, the Freedom of Information Council, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Director of State Courts John Voelker, individual clerks of court and representatives of property owners.

We believe that the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make appropriate use of the information on this system; that they don't need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.

Keep in mind that in a democracy, citizens are paying the costs for police protection, the court system, the prison system and a whole host of social services. The public has a right to know what the agencies are doing and who is involved in the system. That’s a right that’s earned when we are footing the bill!

SB 526 would greatly restrict what records are available on WCCA’s CCAP and thus dramatically undercut the site's usefulness – it is a horrible idea and a step in the wrong direction. Under this measure the CCAP would go from being a tool for tracking what happens in our state court little more than a registry of known offenders. Only the names of those found guilty would appear.

Without a doubt, some employers and others use the information on this system to unfairly deny opportunities to applicants. But there is no evidence this practice is as widespread as the site's critics claim. Representatives of business groups and landlord associations have offered credible testimony attesting to their commitment to following the law and using this information in appropriate ways.

Some employers and landlords post job openings and put up "for rent" signs because they actually need workers and want tenants, not simply so they can turn people away due to a dismissed charge from long ago.

The public should fundamentally oppose the idea at the heart of this bill, that the way to deal with a perceived problem regarding the use of public information is to make it harder to obtain that information. More harm than good will come from this approach.

Passage of this bill would be a boon for private providers of court records data, those companies that offer to run background checks on people for, say, $10 a pop or $30 for full access each year. And those private operators do not have the same checks on accuracy as does the state's system.

If this bill were to pass, WCCA would henceforth give a distorted view of what happens in our courts. For instance, every prosecutor would have a 100 percent conviction rate on every charge, because charges that were dismissed would not appear.

It would mean that most of the charges brought against former members of the Legislature, like Brian Burke and Chuck Chvala, would disappear from view.

The idea driving this bill is that ordinary citizens lack the intelligence or decency to make rational judgments about cases in which charges are dismissed or a defendant has been found not guilty. The people of Wisconsin deserve more credit than that.