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Pardon Board does ‘weighty’ work

Chris Steller//June 24, 2016

Pardon Board does ‘weighty’ work

Chris Steller//June 24, 2016

Mark Dayton
Mark Dayton

It may be as close as you’ll come in Minnesota to a scene from the Middle Ages in which a supplicant appears before a sovereign, begging forgiveness or a favor.

And the setting is relatively regal: an airy, high-ceilinged room in the stately, historic wing of the Minnesota Judicial Center just to the east of the state Capitol, with tall windows that look out over the upper Capitol Mall.

But the chairs are ordinary, not thrones; the tables are not carved with scowling animals; and the authorities sitting in judgment are not kings or princes but representatives of two branches of our democratically elected state government.

It’s the Minnesota Board of Pardons, a three-member body consisting of the governor, the attorney general and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The board meets twice a year to hear directly from people who have applied for pardons for criminal offenses for which, in most cases, they have completed sentences five to 10 years earlier. Individuals receiving a “Pardon Extraordinary” are no longer required to report the conviction, except in limited circumstances.

Lori Swanson (submitted photo)
Lori Swanson (submitted photo)

On June 15, Gov. Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea considered the pardon applications of 18 people, plus five more asking for a waiver of the usual waiting period after the discharge of their sentences.

Rather than have all the applicants arrive at once, the afternoon’s hearings are scheduled to the half hour. One applicant after the next takes a turn, approaching the applicant’s table with family, friends or attorneys.

They sit perhaps 30 feet from the board members they are trying to persuade. Each applicant makes a statement. Their supporters sometimes add a word. The proceedings are at once intimate and formal, deliberative and decisive.

“It’s a frightening responsibility because the stakes are so high for each person, and it has such enormous impact on their lives, one way or the other,” Dayton said in an interview with Capitol Report. “Weighty is a good word for it. It’s an enormous responsibility to really try to look into somebody’s soul and see whether they’re deserving of a pardon. It really wipes their past record clean, which is a very, very significant decision and outcome for them.”

The governor said he sees the pardon applicants as breaking down into three groups.

First are people who have been found guilty of a crime of violence, physical or sexual assault.

“Those are basically, clearly disqualified,” Dayton said. “I mean, they get their hearing there, but that’s pretty cut and dried.”

Lorie Gildea
Lorie Gildea

Next are people with relatively minor offenses, often committed when they were young. Many of these are crimes against property or theft in which the offenders have since lived responsible lives for 15 to 20 years or more. “Those are pretty clear-cut, pardonable, pardon situations,” Dayton said.

Last are “the ones in between.” It’s been a shorter period of time since they completed their sentence, and sometimes they committed multiple offenses. Circumstances may include drug dependency or other factors.

“Those are the ones where it’s really questionable and could go either way,” Dayton said. “The problem is trying to understand if somebody has turned their life around, has demonstrated through whatever means that they’ve done personal work, they’ve changed their lives. That they acknowledge their culpability for what they did and are demonstrating that they have really chosen a different path.”

For Dayton, the hardest part of the decisions comes when applicants say their criminal records, even for relatively minor offenses committed years ago, are disqualifying them from moving their lives ahead.

“They have a spouse, they have kids, they’re trying to get a career-advancement opportunity or a job in another field, and their account — and I believe them — is they’re turned down again and again because of this criminal history,” Dayton said. “I don’t [vote to] pardon somebody for that reason alone, but it makes it an even more momentous decision.”

Chief Justice Gildea said Pardon Board hearings are hard for all involved.

“People come and tell their personal stories, and it can be quite emotional,” she said in an interview with Capitol Report. “And it’s always very difficult for the applicant, I’m sure, to come and talk to a roomful of people about what in all likelihood was one of the worst experiences in their life. It’s a very difficult task.”

But there are stories of redemption that can light up the sometimes grave mood in the room.

“It’s really quite remarkable, the lessons that they’ve learned from being involved in the system and the efforts that they’ve made to reform themselves, and the outpouring of support that you see from their communities and families,” Gildea said.

At this month’s meeting, six of the 18 applicants received pardons, which require a unanimous agreement of all three board members. One pardon application failed on a split vote, with only Swanson in favor. (Swanson was unavailable to comment on this story.)

Among those who left happy was a woman with a long record of check forgery and drug convictions who has devoted her personal and professional life to helping others with addiction problems. She said she hoped a pardon would help her get greater access to her children. Another was a man from out of state with a burglary conviction from 1972 who wanted a pardon so he could own a gun to protect his family.

But a woman with an assault conviction, who said she couldn’t get a job despite training as an X-ray technician, was refused a pardon after she appeared to laugh off speeding violations on her driving record.

The rate for success for applicants is not high, but Gildea said she found the process rewarding overall.

“It’s a very affirming process for me to be involved in. I think it’s an example of cross-branch cooperation, if you will, that’s affirming for Minnesotans,” said Gildea. “When I first started on the Pardon Board, the governor and attorney general were members of different political parties, and it was affirming for me as a Minnesotan to see how well they worked together, the governor and the attorney general, on these very important matters.”

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