If Jerry Brown wants to end his 16 total years as California governor on a high note, there’s something big, bold and important that could cement his legacy: a blanket gubernatorial pardon for all lower-level first-time offenders who have stayed out of trouble for more than a decade.
The action wouldn’t be as difficult politically as it sounds and would help thousands of Californians participate in political life and pursue the careers of their choice.
Some background first: The University of Georgia estimates that as many as 2.1 million adult Californians have felony convictions and about half as many have served a sentence behind bars. Nearly all convicted criminals have done things that deserve punishment, but few of them deserve something that should last forever. Particularly for those convicted of lesser crimes, a chance to prove their worth to society is deserved. Brown, as governor, already understands the power of the pardon. While his three predecessors granted a combined total of 28 pardons, he has made 1,100 since beginning his third term in 2011.
The existing limits on a California’s governor’s pardon power already answer common political criticisms that might be raised about a blanket pardon. A pardon can’t even be considered until 10 years after the completion of a sentence. While the governor can grant pardons to first-time offenders, granting clemency to a recidivist requires consultation with the parole board and a majority vote of the state Supreme Court. Moreover, California governor’s’ pardon does not restore firearms rights (a separate process exists for that) and doesn’t actually result in a record being expunged. It also does not remove sex offenders from the state’s registry.
It does, however, restore voting rights and, with some exceptions, the ability to receive the occupational license needed to enter careers like real estate and cosmetology. In short, a California pardon is not a process of forgetting an offense, but rather a way of allowing those with past criminal convictions to become full social participants. According to sentencing statistics compiled by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, nearly all such people are non-violent offenders: white collar criminals, drunk drivers and small-time drug dealers to take three common examples. Recidivism rates decline sharply for those over 30 and with each year that somebody stays out of trouble.
The very youngest people now eligible for pardons granted by the governor alone would be nearly 30 already; most are older.
While pardoning thousands at once would be unusual for a state governor, blanket pardons are not new. President Barack Obama issued one to over 1,700 inmates serving federal time for lesser drug offenses and Jimmy Carter gave one to everyone who resisted or evaded the Vietnam-era draft. State governors followed their lead, and in 2016, outgoing Virginia Democratic governor Terry McCauliffe restored voting rights to over 100,000 of that state’s felons. Illinois and Arkansas Republicans George Ryan and Winthrop Rockefeller commuted all of their state’s death row sentences to life in prison as they left office.
The punishment of a felony conviction followed by a sentence and 10 years of good behavior doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. For one-time offenders, however, this should be enough to welcome them back into society as what they are: fellow citizens.