Tony Evers revives pardoning in Wisconsin

In October 2021, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued 15 pardons, adding to the 71 grants he made over the summer, bringing the total number of pardons since he took office in 2019 to an impressive 278.

To contextualize this number, the Wisconsin Pardon Database, which extends back to 1977, contains a total of 986 pardons. In just 30 months, Governor Evers has accounted for more than a quarter of all pardons granted in Wisconsin over the last half century.  This is particularly significant because pardon is the only way that a person with an adult Wisconsin conviction can regain rights and status lost as a result of conviction.

Equally notably, Governor Evers has reinvigorated a dormant pardon process after years of neglect. Scott Walker, who served two terms as governor before Evers, did not grant a single pardon. But the Pardon Advisory Board (PAB) is appointed by the governor to oversee applications and hearings, and to make recommendations for or against pardon. Perhaps the board simply neglected its job?

The truth is unfortunately far more disappointing. Walker not only never granted a single pardon, but he also never even appointed the PAB during his nine years in office. Instead, he announced a principled opposition to pardoning anyone, declaring that “these decisions are best left up to the courts.”  But, as noted, Wisconsin has no general statutory mechanism for obtaining criminal record relief in the courts, and Governor Scott appears never to have sought one. It seems he did not consider the use of the pardon power other than to reduce a prison sentence.

The recent neglect of Wisconsin’s pardon system makes Governor Evers’s commitment to executive clemency more impressive. Upon entering office, Governor Evers immediately reinstated the PAB and started the upward trend of grants.

He also streamlined the pardon process through an executive order in September 2021, authorizing the PAB chair to send applications from people with dated non-violent offenses directly to the Governor’s Office rather have them than face a PAB hearing. (The process is still subject to certain statutory requirements of public notice and official comment, as described in the Wisconsin Profile in the Restoration of Rights Project.

Further, and importantly, Governor Evers introduced a new application form that allows individuals to apply for pardon for multiple felony offenses rather than just their most recent offense, as under past policies.

Evers commented in connection with an earlier set of grants that “pardoning an individual is a big step to allowing them to move on in their lives and continue to study, work, and contribute to their communities.” He continued, “I am glad to continue the important process of listening to people’s stories and giving those who have worked hard the ability to have a second chance.”

Clearly, the culture of clemency, criminal justice, and rights restoration is changing in Wisconsin. Upcoming posts will document what appears to be a similar trend in other states seem to be following the trend. CCRC will continue to track these new developments and advocate for further action moving forward.

*This story is part of a series regarding executive clemency during the pandemic. This series documents the recent increase in the use of pardons in states such as Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Oregon. More information each state’s pardon policy and practice is available in our Restoration of Rights Project.