Convicted look to the state for forgiveness

Lovett, a convicted robber and drug dealer from Atlanta, said he needs a job; Adcock, a convicted drunken driver from Cartersville, wants to carry a gun.

Theirs are among the 2,067 pardon and restoration-of-rights applications pending before the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. Both men say they’ve been good for a good long time.

They have a decent chance of getting what they want.

“I am writing this letter to the board because I have put in so many applications for jobs and been turned down because of my background report,” Lovett wrote on his recent pardon petition. “I have a family and I can’t support them because of these felonies. ... I’m trusting you will do the right thing for me.”

Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, but it is also a forgiving state. Each year about 1,600 convicted felons ask the state to officially forgive them for past crimes.

About 38 percent of the requests are granted, according to a review of six years of state figures provided by the parole board. The five-member board issued 561 pardons in fiscal 2010 that ended June 30.

“I look at the age of the person when they committed the crime; I look at the number of crimes and the types of crimes they committed,” said Bob Keller, a member of the board and former district attorney in Clayton County. “The mere fact that it is a particular kind of crime is not as important as the actual facts surrounding it.”

A convicted felon normally has to wait five years after the completion of a sentence, including probation, to apply for a pardon and then must provide three letters of reference. Most felony convictions result in the loss of the civil rights to vote, sit on a jury or hold public office.

Georgia law now automatically restores the right to vote — a move in the 1980s to limit pardon requests — after completion of sentence. A convict can apply in two years to get other civil rights restored without a pardon.

The board issues pardons with and without the right to own firearms.

Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardons official at the U.S. Justice Department and author of a book on state pardons, said Georgia is near the top of a group of 17 states that grant a substantial number of pardons each year. Most states seldom grant them, she said.

She noted that a conviction stays on the record of a pardoned offender. The board tells the pardoned they still have to report past crimes if asked, but the pardon is also supplied to the state for the record.

“A pardon at least allows them to get their foot in the door,” said Jim Wetherington, a former board member. “He can tell an employer that, ‘Yes I did so-in-so in the past but I’ve been pardoned for it.’ ”

Love said offenders need an opportunity to put convictions behind them.

“Your board in Georgia does a very responsible job,” she said. “You ought to be able to get past something you did early in life, and these convictions dog people forever. If you keep being punished and penalized for having done some wrong thing, how do you stop paying?”

Wayne Garner, another former member of the parole board and the former state director of corrections, said Georgia’s practice of locking up offenders for long stays in prison, sometimes for more minor felonies, can bolster a pardon petition if the offender later stayed out of trouble.

“In the past we have overreached in some sentencing, and then later on we have corrected it by giving somebody a pardon,” said Garner, now mayor of Carrollton. “If you’re black and go before a judge in rural Georgia, you’re about five times more likely to go to jail. I think that probably drives up the [number of] pardons more than having a forgiving heart.”

Lovett, 59, who said he worked as a roofer until the recent recession, was convicted of armed robbery in 1975 and spent six years in prison. He said he was the unwitting driver when his friends stuck up a Walton County store.

He was convicted of selling cocaine in 1993, which he blamed on not being able to get a job, and served almost a year.

“I’ve really turned my life around, but the felonies keep following me around every time I go apply for a job,” he said. “I just had an interview at Walmart that looked good and then my background check came back.”

Adcock, 46, was convicted as a habitual violator of the driving-under-the-influence law, a felony, in 1984. He said his probation officer then said it was OK for him to go deer hunting, and he never knew of a change in the law that prohibited a felon from owning a firearm.

He said he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon for years but in September was denied when he tried to renew it because of the 1984 felony.

“Back then I was a lot younger and a lot dumber,” said Adcock, who manages rental property for a living. “I never knew I couldn’t have a firearm. It doesn’t make a lot sense to me for a DUI.”

In many states governors grant pardons, but the Georgia Legislature established the pardons board in 1943 after a pardon-selling scandal in the governor’s office.

Now the governor appoints board members to seven-year terms, and they vote in private. A majority vote is needed to grant a pardon.

Walt Davis, the board director of clemency, said he and his staff investigate cases involving serious felonies. A decision can take more than a year if an applicant committed felonies in more than one county.

“You will never get your firearm rights restored if you committed an armed robbery, but you can get a pardon,” he said.

Perhaps the most controversial pardon case was that of Gary Steven Krist. Krist made national headlines in 1968 when, at 23, he kidnapped an Emory University student, buried her in an underground vault and held her for ransom. The board paroled Krist after 10 years of his life sentence. It pardoned him in 1988 so he could pursue a medical degree because many licensing boards won’t consider an applicant with a criminal record without a pardon.

Krist’s medical career stalled because of his notoriety. In 2006 he was arrested in Mobile, Ala., for trying to smuggle 14 kilograms of cocaine. He was released from federal prison last month.

Keller said public reaction usually isn’t a factor.

“In [higher profile] cases you are going to have a lot of time between the actual incident and the application for a pardon,” he said. “The hue and cry might have been a hue and cry 12 years ago, but by the time we get it on a pardon, it is different set of facts of circumstances.”

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