Every fall, one high-profile pardon case predictably dominates the news cycle. Every news broadcast will show footage of the pardoning and every newspaper will feature a blurb about it. I’m speaking, of course, of the annual pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey by the president.
Later this month, President Obama will hold a press conference
outside the White House and present the turkey that he’s decided to pardon from being executed. It’s meant as a light moment during the holidays, a wholesome White House publicity event akin to the Easter Egg roll
. The President usually cracks a few jokes and the press chuckles. (It provided some good material for an episode of the West Wing – the fictional President Bartlet asked
before a pardoning, “Won’t I get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?”)
However, as an attorney who represents pardon candidates before the Illinois Governor, I’m not fond of the message the turkey clemency sends to the public. It represents what critics point to as a potential problem with executive pardons – the possibility for the power to be applied arbitrarily. Out of the many turkeys sentenced to death each year, the White House selects one at random to be spared.
This is not how actual pardons are decided. The vast majority of granted pardons, whether on the state or federal level, are for individuals who served their debt to society and have since spent years rehabilitating themselves. By issuing a pardon, the executive office decides to grant them forgiveness for their act, and a second chance with a clean slate. In Illinois, pardon petitions are carefully considered first by the Prisoner Review Board, and then by Governor Quinn and his staff.
So this Thanksgiving, when the President pardons a turkey, just keep in mind the process works a little differently for our non-feathered citizens.
Yesterday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn decided on 189 executive clemency petitions
, granting 65 of them. This is Governor Quinn's first batch of decisions released since March
. This batch came from dockets ranging from 2004-2012. As is typically the case, the considerable majority of the clemency decisions come in the form of pardon with authorization to expunge.
Including yesterday's decisions, Governor Quinn has now acted on 2,648 clemency petitions, granting 994. While Quinn has worked through most the petition backlog that built up under former governor Rod Blagojevich, there are still some left over as this latest batch indicates.Congratulations to all of those who received pardons and will now be able to seek expungements! For most of you, the wait was long and difficult, but now you may finally move forward in your lives without the burden of a criminal record.
We must also extend our gratitude to Governor Quinn for realizing the importance of giving a second chance to those who have earned it!
This weekend, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law bills aimed at helping those with a criminal record to restart their lives. As previously discussed
, one of these new laws will increase a tax incentive for employers to hire ex-offenders.
However, the biggest change in the law
for record clearing purposes is a further expansion of felony convictions eligible for sealing. Previously, the only felony convictions eligible for sealing were Class 4 level drug possession or prostitution unless special authorization was granted by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board
. But under this new law, sealing eligibility will also include Class 3 and Class 4 level theft, retail theft, forgery, possession of burglary tools, and deceptive practices.
When the bill was originally introduced, it also included Class 2 level felony cases burglary, delivery of a controlled substance, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. But, these offenses were later deleted as the bill was amended. If you were convicted of any of these felonies, your option for clearing it from your criminal record is still executive clemency (Governor’s pardon).
Today is the pardon petition deadline in Illinois, a quarterly deadline to submit petitions requesting executive clemency to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Apart from the many living individuals asking Governor Quinn for a second chance, this time there are some 19th century names in the batch as well.
After working with historians, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon has filed petitions
on behalf of abolitionists convicted in the 1800s. Although slavery was abolished in Illinois in 1824 – well before the civil war – the law at the time still prohibited assisting fugitives from slave states. Simon’s petitioners include:
· Dr. Richard Eells
, a participant in the Underground Railroad in Quincy who was caught in 1842 assisting Charley, a runaway slave from Missouri
· Samuel and Julius Willard, father-and-son abolitionists of the Jacksonville area who were convicted in 1843 of harboring a fugitive slave
Although most people seek a pardon for better job opportunities
, there are plenty of individuals who would like a pardon primarily to clear their name. An executive pardon is an act of state-sanctioned forgiveness. It is apparently for this reason that Lt. Governor Simon has submitted these petitions. After more than 150 years, a pardon for these abolitionists from Governor Quinn would be an acknowledgement of an unjust policy, and a public gesture of gratitude for their efforts.
The 2014 Illinois Governor’s race is starting to ramp up, as former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley threw his hat into the ring
this week. If state Attorney General Lisa Madigan also decides to run, the incumbent Pat Quinn could end up with a fierce three-way battle in the Democratic primary. And that’s if Quinn decides to run for re-election, which he has not publicly announced yet. There are also several Republican candidates already in the race, including state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Senator Kirk Dillard.
Since Governor Quinn has proven himself to be one of the most pro-pardon governors
in the country, I have recently heard from clients who are nervous about what will happen if a new governor takes over in 2014. Since 2009, Quinn has steadily worked his way through the backlog of clemency petitions left over from the Blagojevich administration. By regularly issuing decisions
and granting those to individuals who have paid their debt to society and shown rehabilitation, he shows that he is respectfully reviewing the requests. Would Governor Daley, Madigan, Rutherford or Dillard act similarly? Can we point to anything in their experience that indicates a predilection to approve or deny pardons? Would any of them go the route of Blagojevich or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and ignore the responsibility entirely?
The simple (but yes, unsatisfying) answer: we just don’t know. Granting pardons is one of the few powers that is entirely up to the discretion of the chief executive. Furthermore, on both the state and federal level, historically it has not been a partisan issue. You cannot predict how a leader will act on pardons based on his party affiliation.
Because of the uncertainty over who will take over the governor’s job, I have heard from a few individuals who are wondering if they should hurry and submit a pardon petition immediately, with the hopes it will come before Quinn while he’s still in office. My answer is that your best chance for receiving a pardon will be if you have shown years of productive rehabilitation and have taken steps to get your life back on track. If that’s not the case, it will be difficult to get your petition granted. The best time to submit a pardon is when your life is in the right place for it, not based on who is in office at the time. If you would like to discuss the merits of your particular case further, give me a call
for a consultation.
In a pretty scathing article, the Associated Press recently reported
that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has not issued any pardon decisions since he took office. Worse still, he hasn’t even appointed anyone to his pardon advisory board. He’s refusing to even give the appearance that pardon applications from people in his state are being respectfully reviewed.
Walker’s anti-pardon policy echoes what we recently saw here in Illinois. Our last Governor, Rod Blagojevich, failed to issue any pardon decisions during his six years in office. The comparison serves as a reminder that clemency is not a partisan issue—Walker is a Republican and Blagojevich is a Democrat. Fortunately, Blagojevich’s successor, Governor Pat Quinn, has been steadily working his way through the backlog
of pardon petitions in Illinois. He’s granted hundreds of executive clemency petitions so far. This makes him one of the most proactive governors in the country to issue pardons, along with California Governor Jerry Brown and Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe
I applaud the AP for calling the public’s attention to Walker’s failing. There are currently more than 1,400 pardon requests sitting on his desk. Many of these requests come from individuals who long ago served their time and are trying to be productive citizens. The AP interviewed one Wisconsin man who’s been offered a job contingent upon receiving a pardon. The man is currently having trouble making ends meet, and is upset at Walker’s stance. He told the AP:
“Is that the plan? For all of us to fail? To have people leeching off the state? For me to lose my house? [Walker's] slogan is we've got to move Wisconsin forward. Well, you know what, Mr. Walker? I need to move forward. I'm not asking for a handout. All I need is a signature from him. Do something. Don't just sit there."
Yesterday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn released his first batch of clemency decisions
for 2013. On this Easter weekend, 222 petitioners will be receiving their decisions, with 87 of them being granted. The decisions came on petitions that were filed between 2005 through 2012. The vast majority of executive clemency approvals come in the form of pardons with authorization to expunge their criminal record.
With this latest batch, Governor Quinn has now acted on 2,459 petitions since taking office, granting 929 and denying 1,530. It’s all part of an ongoing effort
by the Governor to overcome the backlog of clemency petitions left over from former Governor Rod Blagojevich.
At the Bryant Chavez Law Office, we would like to congratulate those that get to start the next chapter of their lives with a clean slate! We would also like to commend Governor Quinn for taking action to help them start over. Unlike some other governors, Governor Quinn has proven that he is willing to grant a fresh start to those who have earned it.
Last week’s Boston Globe
featured a good op-ed
by Leon Neyfakh about the philosophy behind presidential pardons and a history of their use. The article was prompted by the White House’s recent announcement that President Obama had issued pardons
to 17 ex-offenders. This brings the total number of pardons Obama has granted to 39. Neyfakh, like many in academic and legal circles, feels this number is far too low. He says: “At a moment when the incarceration rate in the United States is near an all-time high, and the experience of living and working with a felony conviction is growing ever more difficult, it’s worth asking whether the president ought to see the pardon power not just as an option but as a duty.”
Some historical pardons Neyfakh points out are:
· 1800: Thomas Jefferson pardoned individuals convicted under the Alien and Sedition Act, which he considered unconstitutional
· 1919: Woodrow Wilson pardoned 500 people convicted under liquor laws, to signal his opposition to Prohibition
· 1960s: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reduced the sentences of more than 200 drug offenders convicted under mandatory minimum sentences in the 1956 Narcotics and Control Act
In each of these cases, the president used his pardon power to send a clear policy message that a law was unjust. Each of the laws above was later repealed. Neyfakh comments that in his second term “President Obama could use [pardons] in a similarly principled way, highlighting whole categories of individuals whose lives have been ruined by policies he sees as unjust or unduly harsh—injecting urgency into, say, the national debate over mass incarceration or the disproportionate impact of drug laws on minorities.”
On the state level, we here in Illinois saw the pardon used in such a way not too long ago. In 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of everyone on or waiting to be sent to death row in Illinois. The blanket act affected 167 individuals, who were issued life sentences instead. Ryan saw it important to act to avoid any possibility for a mistaken execution. (13 wrongly convicted death row inmates had recently been exonerated.) Obama was an Illinois State Senator during this time and is no doubt familiar with these pardons. Only time will tell if Obama chooses to use his pardon power in a similar way before he leaves office.
The White House announced
Friday that President Obama has granted pardons to 17 individuals convicted of non-violent federal crimes. As the Washington Post reports
, the successful petitioners “were sentenced years if not decades ago for such minor federal offenses as falsely altering a U.S. money order, possessing an unregistered firearm, embezzling bank funds and acquiring food stamps without authorization.”
Pardons on a federal level do not expunge a crime; the crime remains on the individual’s record. However, the pardon is an act of forgiveness from the President. Receiving a presidential pardon can remove barriers to certain career, financial, and other opportunities. Presidents can issue pardons for incarcerated individuals that include a commutation of sentence, but historically the vast majority of pardons issued have been for individuals who have already served their sentences.
Much like how Governor Quinn receives recommendations from the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that aid in making his state-level pardon decisions, President Obama has the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney
that reviews applications. However, in the end it is entirely up to the chief executive whether to approve or deny any given petition. The “Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses” is an authority of the President specifically stated in Article 2, Section 2
of the U.S. Constitution.
These are the first pardon decisions Obama has issued in his second term as President. Previously, he granted nine in December 2010, eight in May 2011 and five in November 2011. Although this total of 39 is much lower than his predecessors
—George W. Bush granted 189 pardons in his presidency, while Bill Clinton granted 396—it doesn’t necessarily indicate that acts of clemency will remain rare in his second term. It’s true that presidential pardons can be tricky political territory. Ford’s notorious pardon of Nixon was a public-relations disaster from which he never recovered, and Clinton’s pardon of financier/fugitive/Clinton-campaign-donor Marc Rich was heavily criticized. But so far all of Obama’s decisions have been non-controversial and have received very little media attention. Without a looming re-election battle, perhaps Obama will work his way through more pardon applications in the next few years. It’s a good sign that this first batch comes less than two months into his second term.
In 1963, 18-year-old Richard Eggers and a friend visited a laundromat in Carlisle, Iowa. Bored and curious, Eggers decided to cut a dime-sized piece of cardboard out of his detergent box and see if it would work in the washing machine’s coin slot. Consequently, he was arrested and convicted of falsifying currency. He spent two days in jail.Fast forward nearly 50 years. Eggers, a Vietnam Vet, has been working for the past seven years in a $29,795/year customer service job for Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Iowa. Out of the blue, his bosses at Wells Fargo inform him that he’s been fired because of the fake-dime conviction on his record.Eggers’ employment was terminated as a result of new FDIC regulations which forbid banking institutions to employ anyone convicted of a crime involving dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering. The laws were created as an attempt to combat mid-level and executive fraud in the wake of the devastating 2008 financial crisis. Members of the media and public have expressed outrage that thousands of low-level bank workers with minor arrests have been fired since the regulations were enacted. As a result of Eggers’ public campaign, he received a fast-tracked waiver from the FDIC to return to work at Wells Fargo. He refused to return, however, until Wells Fargo agrees to make changes to its background check process.Although Eggers’ case has been highly publicized, there are countless other individuals across the country who are being denied employment due to increasingly used and increasingly stringent background checks. In addition to the banking industry, employers in many other fields (such as public schools and hospitals) are bound by law to conduct background checks. Many other private-sector companies choose to screen applicants with criminal records as a simple filter in a competitive job market. For ex-offenders who now live crime-free, productive lives, the imposing presence of background checks can seem like a permanent roadblock between them and their future success. However, that roadblock can be removed if a person is eligible under guidelines in his state to clear his record through an expungement, sealing or a Govenor’s pardon.In Iowa, where Eggers lives, most adult criminal convictions are not eligible to be expunged from a person’s record. The only exceptions are for certain alcohol-related offenses, such as public intoxication, or for deferred judgments. The only option for all other offenses is to request a Governor’s pardon. However, in Iowa a pardon is only a state-sanctioned forgiveness for a crime; it does not carry with it a right to expunge the case from the petitioner’s criminal record. The mark remains on the ex-offender’s record forever.
Alternatively, if Eggers’s crime had occurred in Illinois, he would have the option to petition the Governor for executive clemency (pardon) which, if granted, would carry with it a right to expunge. Eggers would be a very good candidate for a pardon: this is the only case on his record and he has spent the following 50 years as a law-abiding, responsible citizen. The pardon petitioners I represent often have similar backgrounds. They made a mistake in their youth, but have since had many years without any incidents. These individuals have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and contribute to society, yet their criminal past is keeping them from certain jobs, loans, housing, and other opportunities.It’s also possible that if Eggers’s crime had occurred in Illinois and it was a misdeameanor, he would be eligible to seal the crime from his record (depending on the specific facts of his case, which I have not reviewed). When a record is sealed, it is closed off from the public, but is not physically destroyed as when it is expunged. Nonetheless, it is a simpler and faster process than requesting a Governor’s pardon. It’s possible that a sealing would be sufficient for Eggers’s situation.