By Lyn Head, former chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles
I’ll never forget my first pardon hearing. A man about my age stood before me. His back-story of struggles and failures in school, relationships, and alcohol and drugs sounded like those of hundreds of people I’d prosecuted as a Deputy District Attorney and District Attorney in Tuscaloosa. Yes, he had been to prison, but he also completed a successful re-entry program and a certification for his dream job, and he owned his own small business. He had recovered from drugs and alcohol, and when he stood before me, he was serving as a leader in his community and a mentor to youth “at risk of becoming him.”
This former “offender”/”inmate”/”convict” had become a business owner, taxpayer, and community pillar. This man had reformed his worldview, rehabilitated his choices, earned advanced education, and worked to correct the vulnerabilities in his community. He had been restored to justice, and as the result, earned a full pardon from the state of Alabama.
I couldn’t wait to tell my husband that I had just participated in “justice with a capital J”. My husband and I met as prosecutors, where he often stated that we should always seek “Justice with a capital J,” which is application of truth to facts, equality to consequences, and restoration to society’s expectations of each individual through recognized means of rehabilitation.
As a prosecutor for 18 years, I witnessed Justice on several occasions: twice when investigators came to inform me that they had developed evidence exonerating the charged defendants, resulting in dismissal of the cases against them; when a rape victim finally felt safe following the sentence of her burglar/rapist to life without parole (after he’d been convicted of 37 burglaries); and when alternative sentencing methods resulted in appropriate mental health treatment that could have prevented their crime had it been available to them. During that career, I prosecuted primarily violent and drug offenses. In cases involving circumstances which were significant to public safety, I sought long sentences, and in hindsight, some too long.
Prior to beginning service on the Alabama Board of Pardons & Paroles in 2016, I had the opportunity for training related to structured decision making, validated risk assessments, and the existence of scientific means to determine recidivism risk. During the first year of the three in which I served, all board members received this training, which better-informed our thinking about sentencing and its purpose to rehabilitate. Public safety is greatly enhanced when pardon and parole decisions are based on training on these industry standards, which includes an evaluation of each candidate based on their current circumstances, applying scientific data regarding their current risk to public safety.
During my tenure, “pardon day” was our favorite day. We heard 50 to 100 cases like the first one I described: countless stories of struggle against unbeatable odds and the cruelty of this world, while getting educations, degrees, successful jobs, and leadership positions as convicted felons. Pardon day brought inspiration, hope, and joy to all who were present, including the board and staff members. We felt privileged as representatives of a state we loved and as individuals, to participate in this advancement of JUSTICE to each of these pardoned individuals.
Those pardoned will continue to have a record of any arrests and convictions but will have their civil rights restored. These include the right to vote, better educate themselves, obtain vocational certification and licensing, to bear arms, to participate in school programs with their own children or grandchildren, travel freely, and to fully participate in family gatherings. In granting a pardon, there is no increased risk to public safety, as each of those pardoned have already been living safely and successfully in the free world for years. Each person pardoned reminded me of the verse “there but for the Grace of God go I” from 1 Corinthians 15:8-10.
Most people who apply for pardons are seeking advancements in job placements and job opportunities through education and certifications, which cannot be obtained without the pardon. The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is 27 percent higher than any unemployment rate among the general public at any time, including during the Great Depression, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Almost one-third of all Americans have some sort of criminal record. How can we fully restore anyone to our community when our community cannot fully recover economic losses from their unemployment or under-employment? Among ex-offenders who are employed, the vast majority are under-employed because of their criminal record, which is not expunged through an Alabama pardon.
A pardon gives this taxpayer a second look by an employer, through the ability to demonstrate that the state recognizes they have surmounted the obstacles of their past and should be evaluated like any citizen in consideration for their employment based on their gifts, skills, talents, education, experience, and personal character. A pardon is the only mechanism available through which their economic success may be enhanced. If one in three Americans could be employed at the level of their full potential, can you imagine how that would affect our economy, schools, secondary education, mental health services and public safety?
In consideration of this risk-free avenue for economic improvement, the existence of a backlog of thousands of pardon applications is alarming. While holding special dockets for pardon considerations has been a stated goal of current executive director Cam Ward, no such dockets have been held since September 2019.
Pardon Day must be one of dread for the members of the current board, not to mention those whose petitions are being heard, as this precious power of our state goes unexercised. Between 2018-2020, the pardon-grant rate fell from 80% to 41%. In 2021, the rate decreased to 20%. Pardons are now being routinely denied, preventing people from accessing the only mechanism through which their economic success may improve after a criminal conviction.
Albert Pugh should not have dreaded his pardon hearing. He had been out of prison ten years and doing well. He started his own re-entry program in Cullman after working for one of the largest faith-based recovery centers in the state. An ordained minister, Albert has gotten married and bought a home. His record inside and outside prison exceeded any I saw while on the board. His record of service was also known by the board, based on the many times he appeared before them in efforts to assist other men to succeed as he had.
In 2010, a judge determined that Albert was no longer “a violent offender” based on the changes he had made, even while still in prison. A retired veteran probation and parole officer supported him in his re-entry from prison. When I asked this officer what had led her to support Albert, she informed me that Albert had earned boxes of certificates that had filled an entire room. She added that Albert Pugh had actually done more for her than she had done for him. Albert Pugh was denied a pardon in February of this year. This was a pardon day with no inspiration, hope or joy, like most of them since 2019.
Alabama has the important power to exact Justice both through consequences and correction of criminal behavior AND through recognition and acknowledgement when Justice should be restored in an individual. Criminologist David Tait writes that just as moral outrage finds its outlet in punishment, so compassion must find its expression in pardon. As Alabamians, do we have a Justifiable reason to deny a pardon to an individual who has already demonstrated he’s contributing to society, and whose pardon could lead to his greater ability to contribute to our economy?
When God exiled the Israelites, His ultimate purpose was their Restoration to Him. In the Book of Isaiah, we learn His goal was to have them return to Him. He often Restores each of us in so many undeserved ways. Blessedly, God’s Restorative Justice is Merciful, Compassionate, and motivated by Love. There but for the grace of God go I. His is an example to be followed by fully restoring all individuals to us whenever we can. As the State of Alabama, we should Restore Justice to pardon decisions.
I encourage everyone to speak up for our fellow brothers and sisters who deserve a pardon and a chance at redemption. Contact Governor Kay Ivey, Board of Pardons & Paroles Director Cam Ward, and Pardon & Paroles Board members Leigh Gwathney, Dwayne Spurlock, and Darryl Littleton. They need to hear from all of us that the people of Alabama want the state to participate in restorative justice through the application of better-informed pardon decisions. We all receive God’s grace through pardon on a daily basis. People who have paid their debts to society are no less deserving of that Grace.
Lyn Head is a lawyer and former prosecutor who previously served as chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles