Gov. Tony Evers re-created Wisconsin's pardons board on Thursday, fulfilling a campaign promise to again consider granting pardons after his Republican predecessor, Scott Walker, halted the process eight years ago.
Evers, a Democrat, is putting his own mark on the process, declining to consider commutation of prison sentences as previous governors did and instituting a new restriction making people on the sex offender registry ineligible.
"I believe in forgiveness and the power of redemption," Evers said in a statement announcing his signing of an executive order creating the board. "People who have taken responsibility for their mistakes and who have worked to improve their lives and communities deserve a second chance."
Evers campaigned on the promise of re-starting the pardon board, but it took him six months to get it done. The state constitution gives the governor the power to grant pardons, so Evers doesn't need approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature, which so far has blocked most of his agenda.
His executive order released Thursday creates a nine-member pardon advisory board chaired by the governor's top lawyer, with appointees by Evers.
More than 1,400 pardon requests were pending when Walker stopped the process in November 2011 without explanation. Since Evers won in November, more than 1,600 people have contacted his office seeking a pardon or more information. Under Evers' program, pardon seekers must resubmit their applications starting Thursday.
Evers expressed frustration in April at how long it was taking his administration to restart the pardons process, saying his attorneys were too busy dealing with other legal issues. Among them were challenges to the lame-duck legislative session that Republicans called in December and used to pass several laws reducing his power.
A pardon doesn't erase or seal a conviction, but it does restore the right to own a gun; to vote; to be on a jury; to hold public office; and to hold various licenses. A pardon doesn't keep a person's criminal record from showing up on background checks, but applicants often say clemency makes them more attractive to employers.
Many of those seeking pardons say their attempts to get better jobs and improve their lives are hindered by the conviction, while others are seeking to clear their names years after a crime.
One person who had contacted Evers about a pardon was the attorney for Laurie Bembenek, a woman at the center of one of Wisconsin's most notorious crime sagas. The former Milwaukee police officer and Playboy club hostess was convicted of killing her then-husband's ex-wife in 1982 but died in 2010 while an earlier pardon request was pending.
Bembenek's attorney, Mary Woehrer, said she would resubmit the pardon request as soon as possible.
Under the process Evers established, the applicant must have completed their entire sentence, including probation, parole or extended supervision, at least five years before applying for a pardon. Previous governors allowed for applicants to seek a waiver to that requirement.
Applicants must also not have been convicted of a new offense since completing their sentence and they can't be registered as a sex offender, a new requirement.
Evers won't consider commuting current prison sentences, something other governors before Walker did look at but rarely did. The last time a governor commuted a prison sentence was in 1995.
The first board appointed by Evers includes former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, who retired in 2013; Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project; and retired Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Kremers, who stepped down in 2018 after 26 years as a judge. He was Attorney General Josh Kaul's nominee.
Evers' attorney, Ryan Nilsestuen, will chair the board. Other appointees are Nate Holton, director of diversity and inclusion for the Milwaukee County Transit System; Cindy O'Donnell, a former deputy director of the state Department of Corrections under both Republican and Democratic governors; Nadya Perez-Reyes, legislative adviser for the Department of Children and Families; and Myrna Warrington, director of vocational rehabilitation on the Menominee Indian reservation.
Evers has the final decision.
Pardons were commonly issued by both Republican and Democratic governors prior to Walker. Republicans Tommy Thompson and his successor, Scott McCallum, issued a combined 262 pardons from 1987 through 2002. Democrat Jim Doyle granted nearly 300 during his eight years in office.