MADISON, Wis. - You might be surprised to hear that the Wisconsin governor's office's most-contacted topic is pardons. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers says he is not surprised at all.
"It was that during the campaign. Every place I went. Of course, people think immediately that this is an urban issue, so if I go to Milwaukee or Green Bay or Oshkosh, I’m hearing a lot of this. But, I hear it everywhere," Evers said.
Evers, in his first sit-down TV interview about pardons, told News 3 Now why he plans on restoring the pardon process in Wisconsin, giving hope to many inmates, offenders and their friends and families.
"There’s a point in everybody’s life where they’ve done something really stupid, and obviously, if you end up in the correctional institution, that’s more serious than others. But you have to believe in redemption and giving people a second chance," Evers told News 3 Now.
From letters to phone calls to emails, more than 1,000 inquiries have flooded Evers' office about pardons since he became governor in January.
One letter came from Derrick McCann, a Madison man who was convicted of a felony in 2004 at age 19. He said his conviction has led him to be denied housing, employment and the ability to see his children.
"I lost hope, so given that there’s a new governor, I thought I would write him and see if he would listen. I’m really looking forward to new eyes looking at my case," said McCann, 33.
Court documents show a friend of his then-girlfriend said he tried to strangle her. McCann pleaded no contest in the case because he said he did not understand what he was agreeing to. He said to this day, he regrets that he didn't go to trial.
"I didn’t know what the seriousness of a felony is. I’m now 33, and that still haunts me, and I really need this off of my record. I believe I deserve a second chance," he said.
Once Evers' office starts accepting pardon applications, McCann plans to be first in line. He said he wrote to Republican former Gov. Scott Walker while he was in office and never got a response.
It has been nearly 10 years since a pardon was issued in Wisconsin because Walker did not issue any over his eight years. He never appointed anyone to serve on the Pardon Advisory Board.
"The rationale that I saw was that he believed that (pardons were) a matter for the judiciary and that he wasn’t going to become involved in that, which is a philosophical position. It happens to be one that’s not consistent with the constitutional structure that we have in this state," said Keith Findley, an associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Wisconsin state Constitution gives the governor the power to grant pardons, clemency and reprieves.
Findley explained that pardons are considered "acts of grace" that forgive someone of a crime, clemency alters the punishment and reprieves interrupt the service of the sentence. He said reprieves are typically only used in death penalty cases, which Wisconsin doesn't have.
The United States Supreme Court has considered pardons to be the "fail-safe" in the legal system, Findley said. The president can only issue pardons for federal crimes, and the Wisconsin governor can only issue pardons for state crimes.
"For (people with convictions), this process is a huge change because it gives them hope for the first time in eight years," Findley said.
He explained that there are no restraints imposed upon the governor, but governors create rules for themselves.
Evers spoke about his plans to put in place his own Pardon Advisory Board and what types of cases he will consider. He said step one will be putting together that board, which he says will have about 15 people. He hopes the board will be in place by summer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:
Rose: You are giving a lot of people hope by opening up this conversation. Is that your intention?
Evers: Absolutely. And not having hope when you should have hope is the wrong thing for the state of Wisconsin to stand for. So I think it’s critically important and I’m looking forward to doing it. (But) it’s risky. For any politician, it’s risky -- someone that you believe that redeemed him or herself and needs a second chance and that sometimes that second chance doesn’t work out. But we have to believe in the human spirit, and I think people of Wisconsin support that.
Rose: Gov. Walker didn’t issue any pardons over his eight years, so why do you feel that it is something you want to do?
Evers: First of all, I believe in redemption. Some people do some bad things, and if they’ve straightened their life out, we have to be willing to give them a second chance. So I think there’s a moral issue here, but in order to make it happen, we have to make sure that people have the re-entry services and all the things that need to be in place for them to be productive members of society. But at the end analysis, we need to do this because it’s the right thing to do.
Rose: What do you say to people who believe some of these crimes are just simply unforgivable?
Evers: And there may be some. I don’t dispute that... I’m sure there are some that folks that may have committed some so heinous that it’s not going to happen. But that’s what we have the board for. They’ll make those recommendations.
Rose: The constitution doesn’t place any restraints on who you can or can’t issue a pardon to, but a lot of times, governors choose to put those rules and restraints themselves. Are there certain rules that you plan on putting in place in terms of which cases you could or could not take up?
Evers: Our legal staff are working on that right now, and that’s another reason we haven’t quite got there. We have lots of people that are interested in pardons and lots of people that want to be on the pardon board, but our legal staff have to gear up for this and they’re obviously doing other things in court in addition to the pardon board.
Rose: Do you feel like you could issue a pardon to somebody not just where you believe they’re innocent, but also in a case where they say that they’re guilty but they believe that they deserve a second chance? Do you feel like those are equally considerable?
Evers: Absolutely, and it’s going to be hard for us to make judgments about whether somebody was innocent or not when a court of law found them guilty. But those cases could happen very frequently, I’m sure. I think most people are people that have come to reconcile themselves with what they did wrong, and they want to make the best of their lives going forward. We want them to be part of our society.
Rose: As far as what’s kinds of cases you plan on taking up, does it span across everywhere from drug charges to anything beyond that?
Evers: Sure. Absolutely. It’s for people that have either served time or are already out or are in prison now that are seeking some change in their life situation, so we’re pretty open around that.
Rose: If someone wants a pardon, what is the process going to be like from your office?
Evers: They will apply and they will have to fill out a specific form. Obviously, those things don’t exist in a way that they should have in the past because there were no pardons considered. So we’ll have all that in line and people will be able to make the application. A lot of people are already reaching out -- even without application forms.
Rose: Do you have a timeline set of when you plan on appointing people to the pardon board?
Evers: I wish it was the first day I was in office, but I believe within the next couple of months, we’ll be in place. We have lots of people that want to be involved with the board, and we have lots of people that want to have their cases reviewed. So there’s a burgeoning issue on both sides of that, and I can’t wait to make it happen.
Rose: So you already have people asking you to be on the board?
Evers: Oh yes, lots of people. People get how important it is, and I think we have to take advantage of people’s interest in being on the board, but we also have lots of people who are already applying.
Rose: What kinds of people are you anticipating appointing to that board?
Evers: Certainly people that have the same worldview that I do that redemption is important, but I think also we have to have people that may have been on the opposite side of that. That might be victims or maybe a relative of a victim. So I think there has to be some balance and some understanding around that issue, but we will get good people that will make good decisions.
Rose: Do you plan on granting not just pardons but also clemency or even reprieves if the situation called for it?
Evers: Possibly. I’ll leave some of that up to the board itself to make those types of decisions, but I just think people that deserve a second chance should get it.
Rose: What do you see the board’s role to be and your role? How does that all fit together?
Evers: I believe they will make recommendations to me. They will recommend, and I will either agree or disagree, but I will certainly defer to them on most cases.
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