By Gregory B. Hladky
2:45 PM EDT, September 17, 2013
If you've been convicted of a federal crime, it's almost impossible to get a pardon. Doesn't matter if you've served your time and turned your life around, or that the crime happened decades ago — your chances of getting pardoned remain virtually non-existent. Experts say the same is true in the vast majority of states.
Connecticut has a very different system and it's one reform advocates say should be adopted nationwide, particularly if we're serious about helping all the people scarred by our failed 40-year-long "War on Drugs."
Between 2008 and 2012, state officials approved pardons of various types for 1,564 people convicted of state crimes in Connecticut. According to data from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, that means that nearly one person out of every three who applied in those years received a pardon.
"The Connecticut system provides an opportunity for a person to clear the slate, to start anew with some hope for a decent future," says former state Rep. William R. Dyson. He says getting a pardon allows someone to "avoid being haunted the rest of their lives" by past mistakes.
With a full Connecticut pardon, a person no longer has to list his or her criminal record on all applications for jobs or licenses. There is "a total erasure of your record," says Richard Caron, executive director of the CT Pardon Team, a non-profit group helping people apply for pardons.
Caron doesn't want anyone to think the reforms Connecticut's put in place since 2003 makes it a breeze for anyone to get a pardon here. "We made it more comprehensible, easier for people to understand," he says of the pardon application process.
Connecticut now also has a special board that reviews all pardon applications, which makes this state "almost unique," says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser.
Caron says only seven other states have a system for pardons that approaches Connecticut's, and he insists that none are a good as ours. "Connecticut is so far ahead of most states," he says.
In the federal government, only the president has the power to commute or pardon a criminal conviction. (Since taking office, Barack Obama has been historically stingy about pardons, issuing only 39 over his four-and-a-half years in office, according to research by ProPublica.)
Most states give governors the power to grant pardons, and they traditionally use those powers very sparingly. Connecticut's constitution gives the pardon power to the General Assembly, which has delegated that authority to the pardons board.
Having a criminal record can hinder someone trying to get an education or a better job or decent housing. "It makes it extremely difficult for people to get on with their lives," says Dyson.
Dyson, for decades one of Connecticut's most influential African-American politicians, has a unique perspective on the issue of state-versus-federal pardons.
His son Erik was convicted on a federal drug conspiracy charge in 1994 and spent nine years in prison. Since then, Erik Dyson has gotten his associate's degree, his bachelor's degree and "just completed his master's degree in computer technology," his father says.
Erik Dyson is now 47. "But it's still tough," says his dad. "Who's going to give him a job working on their computer system? A bank? A hospital? A university?"
"The federal pardon system is a non-system," says Dyson, and Caron agrees.
"There is nothing in the federal system… I've written to Obama a thousand times" to urge federal reform, Caron says.
The big changes in Connecticut's pardon system began in 2003 when the legislature decided to move the process to a new Board of Pardons and Parole. Before then, all pardon applications were handled by a single volunteer in a private law office and Lawlor says that effectively meant that almost none were granted.
The length of time a person had to wait to apply for a pardon (at least five years after completing all prison terms and parole) was also changed. Now, you can apply for a full pardon just three years after being sentenced for a misdemeanor and five years after sentencing for a felony.
A provisional pardon was also created, which allows a person to be hired for jobs or get a license that would normally be prohibited for someone with a criminal record. You can apply for one of those any time after your conviction, but a provisional pardon doesn't totally erase your record like a full pardon does.
The pardons board usually takes about a year to process an application. It looks at all kinds of things, including a person's rehabilitation, work record, personal character references, how nasty or violent the crime was and the impact on the victim or victims.
Lawlor says all that means that "It's almost impossible to get a pardon" if you committed a serious or violent crime.
One reason why people should care about pardon systems right now is that attitudes within the Obama Administration (and the general public) appear to be changing toward the War on Drugs.
Federal prisons, like those in many states, are overflowing with inmates convicted of drug-related crimes. In 2010, we had more than 1.6 million behind bars.
Most of those prisoners are black or Hispanic, and most are poor. Dyson says the current federal pardon system favors the wealthy criminals who have the money to hire lawyers and lobbyists to plead their cause with the White House.
Meanwhile, illegal drug use in this nation remains at about the same level it was decades ago, and those drugs are now often cheaper and more potent than when the War on Drugs began.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the federal government needs to revise its drug sentencing policies and look for alternatives to sending non-violent drug offenders to prison. He has called current sentencing and prison policies "both ineffective and unsustainable."
Reformers say those policies have also damaged tens of thousands of people who were caught up in the system and remain scarred by it years later, haunted by the label of "convicted criminal."
Caron warns that it may be tough to convince the "tough on crime" crowd that Connecticut's system is the way to go. "A lot of people don't like this," he says.
At the same time, Caron says states like Massachusetts and Illinois are now looking at Connecticut's pardon program as a possible model.
Dyson says the best argument in favor of national pardon reform is the success in Connecticut.
"I think it is working," he says. "It provides some degree of hope to people who have turned themselves around and want to get on with their lives."
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