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Two years after he became Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker hasn't issued a pardon or set up the next version of the state's Pardon Advisory Board.
Two years after he became Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker hasn't issued a pardon or set up the next version of the state's Pardon Advisory Board. / Gannett Wisconsin Media

MADISON — Republican Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t issued a pardon or set up the next version of the state’s Pardon Advisory Board, refusing to exercise one of his office’s most expansive powers to restore felons’ former rights.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said Monday the governor has suspended the pardon program but offered no explanation beyond “because he has made the decision not to grant any pardons at this time.” Werwie didn’t have any numbers on how many people have requested a pardon, saying only that the office has received “a bunch.”

Walker’s lack of action stands in stark contrast to his predecessor. Democrat Jim Doyle pardoned nearly 300 people during his eight years in office, with roughly a third coming during the last three-and-a-half months of his tenure. Tough-on-crime Republicans ripped Doyle then, saying he abused his pardon powers.

Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson granted 62 pardons from 1994 through 1999 and none in 2000, his last full year in office. His successor, Republican Scott McCallum, issued two dozen pardons from 2001 through 2002 before he lost his job to Doyle.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said Walker is shirking his duties.

“Maintaining an effective and fair pardon process is an important fail-safe to an imperfect judicial system,” Larson said. “Governor Walker’s failure to appoint members to the pardon review board raises questions about his commitment to a fair and just court system.”

But granting pardons offers few political benefits for governors, especially conservative ones who want to appear tough on crime, said Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University.

“Where is there something to be gained through pardons?” Franklin said. “Maybe the governor simply doesn’t see that as important. I don’t see that there’s a political price to be paid for not pardoning people.”

The Wisconsin Constitution grants the governor the power to pardon anyone convicted of a felony in the state. A pardon doesn’t overturn or erase a conviction, but it restores rights, including the ability to possess a firearm, hold licenses such as liquor licenses and hold public office. Pardon seekers also contend clemency makes them a more appealing hire.

Usually, applicants make their case to the Pardon Advisory Board, which consists of gubernatorial appointees. But the board hasn’t met since the governor took office and he hasn’t named anyone to the panel.

Cecelia Klingele, an assistant law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Walker’s decision denies people who have done their time a chance to make something of themselves.

“It’s a lost opportunity to offer individuals a second chance to become full, law-abiding citizens,” Klingele said. “A pardon doesn’t expunge your record. It doesn’t hide anything. What it does is publicly acknowledge the state has forgiven you. … There is a role for pardons to play and maybe we haven’t done a good job educating leaders how pardons reintegrate people into society.”

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