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  • Writer's pictureChris Zachar

Pardon applications in Wisconsin

Nobody should be defined by their worst day - apply for a pardon today

When Governor Evers assumed office he breathed new life into an institution that Governor Walker refused to use over his eight years in the Governor's Mansion: The Pardon Advisory Board. In the meantime our office has successfully handled dozens of pardon applications for people seeking to reinstate their legal rights or just clear their name of an old mistake. The process continues to be refined, but as of now, many people who are impacted by old felony convictions are now eligible for official forgiveness for their mistakes. This post addresses the benefits of pursuing a pardon, who is eligible, and the process of seeking official redemption.

What is a pardon and who does it help?

A pardon is nothing more than official forgiveness for an old offense that reinstates the legal rights taken away after a criminal conviction. There are many reasons that clients contact our office about pursuing a pardon, but some of the most common include:

  1. Reinstating Second Amendment rights to gun hunt, apply for a concealed carry permit, or keep a gun in the home.

  2. Reinstating the right to run for election for local and statewide positions in Wisconsin.

  3. Allowing the return to a licensed profession that was impacted by a criminal conviction.

  4. Improving your chances for obtaining financing, business license approval, or a professional license to work in certain sectors.

  5. Being allowed to travel to countries with travel restrictions linked to criminal convictions. Canada, in particular, sometimes requires proof of a pardon to conduct business or visit loved ones north of the border.

  6. Being permitted to be a youth coach or attend events for your children that are restricted by criminal record.

  7. Eliminating old drug felonies to be permitted legal entry into cannabis industries now permitted across the United States.

Who is eligible for a pardon?

While the Governor has the authority to pardon or commute any criminal offense, eligibily is narrowed by the current guidelines established by the Pardon Advisory Board. The basic eligibility threshold requires that you be seeking a pardon on a felony conviction. Standalone misdemeanor convictions are not eligible for a pardon application, so for clients interested in mitigating the impact of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, we often need to explore alternative methods of addressing the consequences. However, there is an exception for misdemeanor convictions that were resolved in the same order as a felony conviction that a client is also seeking a pardon on.

The other restrictions are pretty simple: (1) you need to be at least five years from the end of your most recent criminal conviction and not have accrued any new criminal charges in the meantime, (2) you can't be on probation, extended supervision or required to register as a sex offender, and (3) you must not have applied for a pardon within the past eighteen months.

While these are the basic requirements, the Pardon Advisory Board also has more practical restrictions that an experienced pardon attorney can help you steer clear of. First, the Pardon Advisory Board has never recommended pardon, and the Governor has never issued a pardon for felony impaired driving offenses. Second, while the five-year wait time from the end of a criminal sentence to apply is the minimum wait time, if a client is trying to get a pardon on an offense involving violence or involving a victim, we generally recommend applying after more time than the minimal period for eligibilty. Third, if a client still owes restitution or court fees, it is highly unlikely that the Pardon Board will recommend a pardon.

What is the process?

While retaining an attorney to process a pardon application is by no means required, complex or high risk applications can benefit from our experience of successfully obtaining pardons for clients convicted of crimes of violence, financial offenses, felony drug offenses, and more. The process of obtaining a pardon begins with putting together a convincing application. The application is in written form and is a chance for our clients to showcase how their life has changed since conviction of a felony. We generally go through several drafts and ensure that a client has a diverse array of letters of support to attach to the packet. In the process of filing the packet, an attorney will obtain the required certified court documents to attach to the packet and conduct our own background investigation to ensure that clients are eligible and good candidates for a pardon. Once the packet is ready to file, we are required to serve notice on the prosecuting attorney and the sentencing judge for their input.

A pardon application can be filed in two ways. Most applications go the traditional route, requiring a hearing before the Pardon Advisory Board. These hearings are typically held by zoom, but they take a LONG time to schedule. Once an application has been filed the Board is required to contact any victims for their input, and conduct their own investigation to ensure that the contents of the packet are accurate. The hearing itself typically lasts no more than five minutes per candidate, and it is something that we spend a sigifnicant time preparing for; specifically what to say, and what not to say.

If the Board recommends a pardon, it goes to Governor Evers who independently exercises his discretion, but almost always follows the recommendation of the Board. We learn about a month after a hearing whether the Board has recommended a pardon or not.

A second route for pardon applications is the "fast track" route authorized by executive order. This route relies solely on the application and skips the hearing, so it does save some time in the process. But the Board is still required to contact victims and conduct an internal investigation, and even cases addressed on this fast track often take more than a year to address. Cases appropriate for this option include nonviolent drug offenses, white collar offenses where restitution has been paid, or very dated victim offenses.

What have the results been?

Governor Evers has pardoned more people than any other Wisconsin Governor. Approximately two-thirds of candidates whose cases make it to hearing are recommended for pardon, but applications handled by an experienced attorney who can appropriately screen and prepare a packet generally are pardoned at much higher rates. While a pardon won't make a conviction disappear, it has the practical impact of getting your legal rights back. If you would like to explore whether a pardon application is right for you, give us a call. Nobody should ever be defined by their worst days, and the favortie calls our attorneys get to make is telling a client they are getting their life back.

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