By granting 263 pardons in less than three years in office, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has gone where his predecessor, two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker, refused to go.

A pardon restores some legal rights—the right to vote, own a gun, serve on a jury and hold public office, for example—but does not overturn a criminal conviction.

To be eligible, someone applying for a pardon must be convicted of a felony and be at least five years past the completion of their sentence, have no criminal charges pending and not be a registered sex offender.

Although Walker granted no pardon requests during his eight years in office, Evers last week said many with past criminal records deserve compassion and announced rule changes to speed up the pardon process.

The Democrat’s pardons could become an issue when he seeks reelection next year. Republicans who criticize Evers for a “soft-on-crime” response to Madison and Kenosha riots last year could make the governor’s rush to pardon part of that theme.

One timely question: Exactly who got the 71 pardons issued by Evers last week?

  • Those convicted of drug-related crimes got 25 pardons, followed by nine individuals convicted of theft and seven guilty of burglaries. Other crimes included stabbing an abusive
  • partner, single moms who falsely claimed public benefits, ID theft, failing to pay child support, and falsifying environmental remediation reports.
  • State officials said the average age of those pardoned was 22 when they committed their crimes.

One pardoned Milwaukee resident was 21 when he robbed a tavern 45 years ago. Since then, officials said, he “has been a youth mentor and coach through various charitable organizations and is a proud father of two.”

An earlier pardon request of Evers came from someone convicted of car theft in the 1950s.

  • Sixty-two of those pardoned last week live in Wisconsin; nine others live in eight states. Two of the 71 pardoned live in Rock County.

Pardon Advisory Board members hear personal, painful and sometimes teary appeals during Zoom interviews with those who apply and qualify for forgiveness. The board is chaired by Ryan Nilsestuen, the governor’s chief legal counsel.

Pardon Advisory Board interviews are broadcast by WisconsinEye, allowing anyone to hear the personal stories of those seeking clemency.

The board recommends pardons for most of those who qualify for a hearing, but Evers makes the final determination.

One member of the Pardon Advisory Board, the Rev. Jerry Hancock of Madison, said being pardoned can change someone’s life.

“The individuals recommended to Gov. Evers by the Pardon Advisory Board often have something in common: In committing their crimes they sent ripples of harm into the world. In the decades since they committed their crimes, they have sent ripples of healing into the world,” Hancock said last week. “A pardon often allows them to do even more good.”

Hancock, a former lawyer who worked as both a public defender and state and local prosecutor during his government career, said serving on the board has been especially meaningful for him.

“For me, after 50 years in the criminal justice system, this is the best work I have ever done because it offers a unique perspective and an opportunity to recognize how people can change over the course of their lives,” Hancock said, adding;

“Law enforcement officers see one part of a person, lawyers and judges see another part, victims see another part, prison officials see another part. When they apply for a pardon, we get an opportunity to see a whole life.”

Evers is on track to set a record for pardons for recent governors.

Democrat Jim Doyle issued 326 over eight years; Republican Scott McCallum, 12 over two years; Republican Tommy G. Thompson, 202 over 14 years; and Democrat Tony Earl, 196 over four years.

But, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, the four-year record for pardons is 900 granted by Republican Gov. Julius Heil between 1939 and 1943. A contemporary news report from Milwaukee said his nickname was “Julius the Just.”

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at steven

scotwaltes@gmail.com.

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