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Home / Commentary / ON THE DEFENSIVE: Walker fails with decision to bypass pardons

ON THE DEFENSIVE: Walker fails with decision to bypass pardons

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Since he was elected governor, Scott Walker has not appointed a single person to Wisconsin’s Pardon Advisory Board.

Walker summed up his viewpoint of the topic to WKOW-TV in Madison: “The only people seeking pardons are people who are guilty and I don’t have any reason to undermine the criminal justice system.” Walker elaborated on that statement by asserting that people who are innocent can be “granted a change in their sentence, based on the court system.”

That myopic view is unfortunate because the pardon process is an important function in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Constitution vests pardon power exclusively with the governor. Having a power conferred, but refusing to exercise that power, is a clear abuse of discretion.

Despite Walker’s cynical view, pardons serve an important function.

First, there are tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin who, because they have been convicted of nonviolent felonies, have been stripped of their rights to possess firearms. Those people may have been convicted of low-level crimes, such as second-offense marijuana possession or certain types of theft.

And it matters little whether those people committed crimes in their teens, in college or as young adults. A felony is a felony, and the law forever strips those offenders of their right to possess firearms.

Sadly, it was not until 2009 that Wisconsin law even permitted expunging certain low-level felonies. However, because the 2009 law is not retroactive, people who committed offenses prior to the law’s passage cannot secure the benefit.

Second, federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms. The law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, was passed in 1997. But that one is retroactive, meaning anybody who has a domestic violence conviction is categorically barred from possessing a gun, and it is a lifetime ban.

But such low-level offenses as arguing with a spouse qualify as crimes of domestic violence.

The governor’s pardon power provides the cleanest mechanism by which a reformed offender could have such an unfortunate stigma removed.

Finally, pardons help people reintegrate into the community and find employment. That reduces the financial burden on taxpayers because pardons help people contribute toward, rather than receive, government benefits.

Without a pardon, too many people are stymied in their efforts to find meaningful employment.

Walker’s political calculations come at the expense of others.

If he persists in his blanket refusal to consider pardons, he may soon find himself on the losing end of a mandamus action.

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