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Wausau adjusts licensing requirements amid change in state employment law

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By Shereen Siewert

City officials are adjusting guidelines for bartender operator licenses in the wake of changes to Wisconsin law that protect some applicants from discrimination based on their criminal history.

The most recent guidelines being followed by the city’s public health and safety committee and council were revised in January 2017. But new amendments to Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act, which took effect in August, changes the circumstances under which a licensing agency may base its decisions to approve, deny, or revoke a license on an individual’s criminal history.

Before the most recent change to state law a licensing agency was allowed to deny a license to an applicant who was subject to even a pending criminal charge, if the circumstances of the charge were “substantially related” to the circumstances of the particular licensed activity. Additionally, a licensing agency was within its rights to deny a license to applicants convicted of any felony, misdemeanor, or other offense so long as the circumstances giving rise to the conviction were substantially related to the circumstances of the activity for which the license was sought.

Under the amended rules, refusing a license solely because of pending criminal charges is considered discrimination unless the circumstances of the charge “substantially relate to the circumstances of the licensed activity.” Certain, specified charges of crimes against children and some violent crimes are also exempt and are considered legal grounds for refusing a license. Some drug-related charges are also considered valid reasons for refusing a license to alcohol servers.

The new law also provides some relief for those license seekers with a criminal conviction. If a licensing agency denies or terminates a license because of a conviction, the agency must state, in writing, its reasons for doing so, unless the conviction pertains to one of the specified crimes against a child or life and bodily security. This written statement must describe how the circumstances of the conviction relate to the particular licensed activity. The agency then must allow the individual an opportunity to show “evidence of rehabilitation and fitness to engage in the licensed activity.”

Rehabilitation and fitness can be documented by providing proof that the person was honorably discharged or separated under honorable conditions from the military and had no subsequent criminal convictions, or documentation showing the individual completed probation, extended release, or parole and, if the person served time in a correctional institute, that one year has passed since the applicant’s release without subsequent conviction of a crime.

Proponents of the new law say people with criminal records who are confronted with too many artificial barriers to employment upon re-entering society are more likely to find themselves back in prison.

“We know that stable employment keeps people out of incarceration,” said Rep. Warren Petryk (R-Eleva), a co-author of the new law.

And Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the other co-author of the bill, said that considering one-third of adults in the country have some sort of criminal record, job prospects are bleak for a large swath of the population if a license can be denied for any prior conviction.

Applicants in Wausau are responsible for providing the city clerk with evidence of rehabilitation and fitness, which will be forwarded to the the chief of police for consideration and review, who will then make a recommendation on the application.

If the applicant shows competent evidence of sufficient rehabilitation and fitness to perform the licensed activity, the license may not be refused or terminated based upon that conviction or convictions.

The full policy document is embedded below.

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