When Marilynn Winn applied for a pardon, she said her application and criminal history nearly didn’t fit in an envelope. After multiple convictions for larceny and theft over almost 40 years, her record alone was nearly 40 pages thick.
But her application created a strong, if not hefty, case for Winn. It contained a slew of reference letters, information about her contributions to Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reforms and news clippings from her work with the Ban the Box campaign to prevent hiring discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. When the news came nearly a year later that she had been officially forgiven of her criminal history by the state of Georgia, she said it allowed her to “gain my dignity back.”
Winn is only one of thousands to be granted a pardon by Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Historically, the number of pardons issued by Georgia has been relatively generous. The 3,449 pardons granted in Georgia since 2013 forgave over 7,000 offenses.
But as the board has come under scrutiny for its seemingly unchecked power, the number of pardons granted has declined. About 571 or roughly 13 percent of the more than 4,000 applications that were considered by the board were denied by a vote since 2013.
Asked about the falling number of pardons granted, current board chairman Terry Barnard pointed to an application process he said is now “more burdensome on the applicant.” He didn’t mention other possible reasons for fewer pardons being issued by the board in the past 5 years.
A pardon is a formal statement of forgiveness from the state that removes “legal disability” from a person and restores civil and political rights lost in prison, like the right to hold public office, serve on a jury, and serve as a notary public. A former offender can apply for a pardon five years after completing their sentence if they have paid all fines and restitution in full and have no pending charges. Additionally, the pardons and paroles board looks for signs that the applicant has found stability in their life.
“It’s important for us to know the reputation an applicant has built for themselves in the community,” Barnard said. “We want to know how long they’ve lived in a community and whether they’ve kept a job. If I see they’ve lived in the same place for five years, 10 years, 15 years, that immediately says to me that a person is embedded in their community, they are stable and they’re on their feet.”
A pardon doesn’t expunge or seal a person’s record, nor does it absolve them of a crime. But for formerly incarcerated people seeking employment, looking for apartments or pursuing higher education, a pardon can mean the difference between landing a job and being handed a rejection letter.
“There’s very little relief”
Criminal pardons have garnered media attention lately following several high-profile executive clemencies by President Donald Trump. Trump has granted seven presidential pardons so far, among them one for disgraced former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted for contempt of court in connection with the sheriff’s office’s racial profiling practices and another for filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, who was convicted for campaign finance violations. Trump has said he’s considering more high-profile clemencies, including a potential pardon for t.v. personality Martha Stewart.
Brenda Smeeton, legal director of the Georgia Justice Project said that here, there “is very little relief” for people with felony convictions seeking employment.
“If you’ve got a felony conviction, it’s your only option to show you’ve been rehabilitated,” she said.
In Georgia, pardons are granted by an independent board with five governor-appointed members who vote via a closed ballot. It is one of 14 states where pardon authority rests with a board rather than exclusively with the governor, and one of only six states where the board operates independently of the governor.
That independence allows the board to grant pardons more frequently than states where a governor controls grants, said Margaret Love, a practicing lawyer and former U.S. Pardon Attorney.
“Having a board that is independent is more conducive to a state that gives a lot of grants,” she said.
The 3,449 pardons granted in Georgia since 2013 included about 1,626 or 47.1 percent for drug-related crimes, and 1,077 or 31.2 percent for theft. Violent offenses such as murder, armed robbery and the other offenses that fall under the “seven deadly sins” made up only 97 or 2.8 percent of the grants.
Even among states that have similarly structured pardon boards, Georgia delivers a lot of grants. In 2013, when Georgia was granting pardons at a rate of 11.19 per 1,000 citizens, South Carolina’s board was moving applications at a similar rate of 11.16 per 1,000, and Idaho at only 1.3 per 1,000.
But the problem with Georgia’s pardons board, Love said, is that it doesn’t hold public hearings. That’s frustrating and distressing for district attorneys across the state, Chatham County District Attorney Greg McConnell said.
Checks and Balances
McConnell said he “never looked twice at a pardon” until he learned in 2014 that a sex offender he prosecuted had been granted one. He assumed they were rare, only granted to an exclusive number of ex-offenders who have shown they are fully rehabilitated.
Only after hearing that Barry Davis — who pleaded guilty to aggravated sodomy with a 6-year-old girl — had been pardoned did McConnell realize how frequently the state grants pardons. Following an AJC report on the pardon, the board came under fire for the decision and the secrecy that surrounded it.
Neither McConnell nor Davis’ daughter, who was the victim of the crime, was notified by the board prior to Davis’ pardon. McConnell said he doesn’t know what the board investigated when it made the decision to pardon Davis. That’s because the board doesn’t have to tell him: Nearly all of the board’s documentation is considered a “confidential state secret,” and it does not share justification for its decisions.
McConnell said there need to be “checks and balances” on the board, and there have been some efforts to encourage transparency. The pardon application process became more stringent in 2014 and the board created an application specifically for sex offenders. In 2015, an amendment to the Victims’ Bill of Rights said that if the board is considering pardoning an offender convicted of a violent crime, it must contact the district attorney and any registered victims of the crime 30 days before reaching a decision. Steve Hayes, a spokesman for the board, said it now contacts registered victims for every application it considers.
“The opinions of the DA and victims were very important to me,” Robert Keller, a former board member said. “I did reach out to a district attorney one time. And I did not reach out one time. And later, after talking to him, I wished I had.”
Amid criminal justice reform, pardons decrease
When Marilynn Winn appeared in court in 2007, she told the judge she didn’t want to steal anymore. She grew up in extreme poverty and had been stealing all her life to get by, ever since her grandmother taught her how to shoplift when she was 5 years old.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been arrested,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But her six previous prison stints and the more than 20 felonies on her record spoke to her familiarity with the criminal justice system.
In 2007 she was facing five more years for another theft charge when she said to the judge that what she wanted was something that would afford her the opportunity to live comfortably and eventually retire: a job. But her criminal history made it difficult for her to find and keep one.
“I had a job,” she said. “I had had 18 jobs. But I had to lie to get those jobs. And I lost my job because I lied about my criminal record. I couldn’t get another job with my record. So I stole to get what I needed.”
Rather than sentencing Winn to prison, a judge sent her to a program to help her turn her life around. It worked: Ten years later, in August 2017, the state of Georgia pardoned Winn for her criminal history.
“I got a job,” she said. “And since I got that job I haven’t been arrested again.”
Not every applicant is so fortunate. Of the 7,474 pardon applications filed with the board between 2013 and June 2018, about 3,095 weren’t granted for failing to meet the board’s requirements.
As the board’s decision-making process becomes more circumspect, the process of providing legal counsel to pardon applicants has become more difficult. Because the pardons and parole board works in secrecy, counselors don’t always know what the board is looking for.
“They say you can reapply in two years, but I don’t know why the application was denied. I don’t know how to tell my clients about what they can do to be approved next time,” Smeeton said.
And as the state places a heavier emphasis on criminal justice reform, the number of pardons granted annually has dwindled. In 2016, 567 pardons were granted, less than half the 1,177 pardons granted in 2013.
“It is surprising that — given since 2011 the state has really focused on criminal justice reform and included re-entry in that reform — the (pardons) board has kind of clamped down on what they were approving,” Smeeton said.
That might be a response to scrutiny, according to Georgia Justice Project Executive Director Doug Ammar.
“The more the board gets scrutinized the more conservative they get,” Ammar said. “Their decisions are being micromanaged and they’re going to be more cautious about the decisions they make.”
“We just want our folks to be able to access as much help as they can,” Ammar said. “If we knew how to direct our clients to be better citizens when they get out, I would love that.”
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