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Gov. Tony Evers gathered alongside members of the state’s Pardon Advisory Board and individuals who’ve received recent pardons at the Crossroads Collective in Milwaukee. Evers called the Tuesday morning gathering a celebration, not just for those present, but also for the more than 260 people who’ve received pardons under the Evers administration.
“If you hear from any one of the more than 260 others I’ve pardoned, you’ll find stories of redemption, service to others and hope for the future,” said Evers. “As I said when I reinstated the pardon board, I believe in forgiveness and in the power of redemption. And I believe the people of Wisconsin believe that also. So I’m glad to announce today that with this latest group of 71 pardon recipients, our total number of pardon recipients is 263 and counting. And we’re on the target to pardon more during my first term than any other governor in recent history.”
Evers emphasized that after nine years of “the Pardon Advisory Board sitting dormant, there are a lot of people looking and hoping for their second chance.” Evers also revealed that he signed an executive order on Tuesday which expanded the criteria for pardon eligibility and expedited pardons. Under his new process, the chair of the Pardon Advisory Board can send a recommendation for a person to be pardoned directly to the governor without a board hearing, but only if the person committed a non-violent offense and sufficient time has passed since the conviction.
“Under our current process, an individual is not eligible for a pardon until after five years have passed since they’ve completed their sentence,” said Evers. “And that’s going to continue to be the same. But that’s also presented some challenges for folks who might have had additional charges that were related to, or came after, those first charges. We found there were folks who were not able to receive a pardon, not because their crimes were more serious or because they posed a greater risk to the community, but simply because of the timing of their convictions in this sentencing.”
Evers hopes to further streamline the pardon process by opening the door for those whose circumstances are similar to those already receiving pardons. “This will impact folks with non-violent, low-level offenses such as bail jumping, drug possession or fraud,” said Evers. “This will help get these non-violent, low level offenders through the system quicker and onto the road toward their next goal.”
Nate Holton, a member of the Pardon Advisory Board and the director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Milwaukee County Transit System, echoed those points. “We have encountered so many individuals with remarkable stories and tales of redemption,” said Holton. “Each and every one of us makes mistakes. The goal in life is not to avoid mistakes, because that is impossible. The goal in life is to learn from your mistakes, to grow from your mistakes, to become a better person because of your mistakes and to ultimately reach your potential by learning through your mistakes. We have interacted with a lot of people who have done just that.”
Also present at the Tuesday event was Jason Alston, a Milwaukee man who recently received a pardon. “It’s a journey after you make decisions,” said Alston, who’s also a minister and known locally as an excellent cook, “that has a potential future good or bad. And for me, it was a bad decision, twice in three months.” Alston recalled during his first day of incarceration his cellmate told him, “Man you don’t look like you belong in here.” That led to Alston’s decision to better himself. “It’s always a challenge having a felony, not knowing if you’ll be able to qualify for certain things when it comes to college or school period,” he continued. “Getting housing, getting an apartment, a lot of those things are in jeopardy because of the choice that you made.”
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Alston went to MATC as a culinary student, and went on to get a bachelors degree in business management. Eventually, Alston opened up his own restaurants. He told the group, “I really feel like everything that led up to this point is to help somebody else that probably is going to go through what I went through already.”
Prison abolition activists from the project Abolish MKE, however, are unsatisfied by Evers’ actions so far. Both on pardons, and in reducing Wisconsin’s incarcerated population. Abolish MKE does a variety of organizing actions, including protests, hosting testimonials from formerly incarcerated people and directly approaching elected officials, including Evers. On Aug. 30, members of the group approached Evers after a press conference on public transportation. “You need to expand the pardon criteria,” Ben Turk of Abolish MKE said he told Evers. “There are people dying in prisons.”
Although encouraged by the expanded and expedited criteria, Abolish MKE doesn’t plan to let up the pressure. “We will not stop,” the group said in a social media post. “We will not let people think these baby steps are a sufficient response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis and systemic white supremacy in the Wisconsin prison system.”
Updated on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 12:00 p.m.: This article was updated to include Abolish MKE’s critical response to the Evers administration.
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