Syreeta Robinson had just gotten done with work in late 2020 when she saw an email pop up on her phone from Gov. Tony Evers’ office. She burst into tears of joy and relief.
Robinson ran into the other room to her two sons, but she was so excited they could hardly understand what she was trying to tell them.
“I was screaming,” Robinson recalled with a laugh. “They looked at me with the bug eye, like, ‘What’s wrong with you, Mom?’ It took me awhile to get it out, and then … I was able to tell them, ‘I got my pardon! I got my pardon!'”
Since that day, Robinson, 40, said the pardon for her long-ago conviction of identify theft has broken down barriers. She was able to get a job as a probation officer — a position she was previously denied, likely because of the crime she committed when she was in her early 20s.
“I wanted to be in a space where I could mentor someone and lead them after they made a bad decision because one bad decision is not the end of your life,” Robinson said of her wish to become a probation officer. “If I can reach just a few people in my life, in my career, hopefully we can make a change in the system.”
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Robinson is one of nearly 500 people who Evers, a Democrat, has pardoned — the most pardons of any Wisconsin governor in at least 40 years.
But while many like Robinson have gotten new opportunities since their pardons, others have found a sometimes decades-old conviction is still a hurdle, despite being forgiven by the most powerful person in the state. Some have not been able to attain the professional positions or licenses that prompted them to seek the pardon in the first place.
“Pardons remove all of the formal legal consequences of criminal conviction,” UW-Madison associate law professor Cecelia Klingele said. “It’s sort of like it’s the magic wand that erases all of the consequences (of) that conviction — except the informal ones. No pardon can make people not be biased against you, unfortunately.”
A pardon is an official grant of forgiveness that restores legal rights such as the ability to vote, own a gun, serve on a jury, hold public office and hold certain professional licenses. The conviction still shows up on background checks, but recipients say having a pardon on their record can open up opportunities and make them more attractive to employers.
In Wisconsin, pardons are only given to those who completed their sentences for a felony conviction at least five years earlier and have taken significant steps to make amends and contribute to their communities. Sex offenders and those with pending criminal cases are not eligible.
Evers’ predecessor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, did not issue any pardons during his eight years in office, carrying to an extreme the practice of his GOP predecessors to limit their use of pardons, including Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who issued 238 pardons over 14 years. Evers reopened the spigot in October 2019 and has since been using his constitutional power of clemency at a record-breaking pace.
This month, Evers’ office announced that he pardoned another 49 people, bringing the total to 498. That’s still just a portion of those seeking clemency.
More than 2,000 people had applied for pardons as of March 31, according to Evers’ office. Nearly 538 of those applications were rejected after an initial review found them incomplete or ineligible.
Another 231 applications were denied by the Pardon Advisory Board, Evers or both. Most go to the board first, but some applicants with nonviolent felonies from long ago can go straight to Evers’ desk.
In a February 2020 interview, Evers said pardoning people who have “picked up the pieces and learned from their mistakes” is “the right thing to do,” especially for those whose crimes were many years ago.
“It’s been like 20, 30, 40 years later” for some applicants, Evers said. “It’s about time to recognize that they’re full citizens of the state of Wisconsin and deserve the respect that they have engendered because of their hard work.”
Past ‘will follow me’
But some have faced challenges even after getting pardoned.
Kathryn Morrow, 39, who lives in Hartford, applied for clemency in large part because she wanted to pursue a career in health care. But it’s unclear whether she could get certified to be a nurse.
Morrow was pardoned in November 2020 for a burglary and theft conviction when she was 23 and struggling with a drug addiction.
She relapsed and broke into her parents’ house to get her belongings after they said she couldn’t come home. They pressed charges. Morrow said she is grateful because the conviction was “the catalyst” for her making changes in her life.
Morrow completed probation, went through extensive rehabilitation and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She now works as a drug and alcohol prevention specialist, trying to help prevent children from going down the path to addiction.
She sought clemency to advance her career in the health care industry. But after earning the pardon, nursing school admissions counselors said her conviction would likely bar her from becoming certified even if she completed nursing school.
Morrow said she spent about six months going back and forth with the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services trying to figure out whether her pardon could open that door, but had no luck.
“I just never got an answer,” she said. “I guess the fault lies in myself for just kind of giving up.”
Fear of people’s perceptions also held her back, she said. Around the same time, she saw an article about a state that allowed a “drug-stealing nurse” to keep practicing. Even though Morrow’s conviction was more than 15 years ago, she was afraid of being painted that way.
“That mistake has and will follow me for the rest of my life, pardon or no pardon,” Morrow said.
Eric Pizer, 41, also said his pardon didn’t have the impact he thought it would.
A decorated Iraq War combat veteran, Pizer wanted a pardon to pursue a career in law enforcement.
He was convicted of a felony after throwing one punch that broke a man’s nose on a night of drinking when he was 23, only two days back from being deployed in Iraq. Pizer was trying to break up an argument between his friend and a jealous husband when he heard the husband say, “I’m going to … kill you.” Pizer said the punch was a “knee-jerk reaction” after coming back from a war zone.
Pizer was one of the first to get a pardon from Evers. But in the more than two years since, Pizer said he “could not get anywhere” when applying to jobs at local police departments. He’s not sure what he was doing wrong.
Pizer, who now lives in Baraboo, said his pardon did help him get a recent job at a railroad services company. He’s currently working as a mason at Bear Creek Masonry in Lone Rock.
While Pizer hasn’t achieved his career aspirations, he said getting the pardon was still “extremely meaningful” to him.
“Just mentally for myself, I’m not carrying that weight anymore,” Pizer said. “It’s just a longtime battle and stress that’s finally over.”
Similarly, the Rev. Mwangi Vasser, 43, said he’s been doing well since he was pardoned alongside Pizer in October 2019, but “there are still some hurdles here and there.”
Vasser was pardoned for cocaine possession when he was 19. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies, a master’s in theology and a doctorate in theology and divinity. He’s been a counselor, minister, barber and certified nursing assistant for hospice care.
He sought the pardon to pursue his dream of becoming a military chaplain.
Vasser has accomplished half of that goal: He’s now a chaplain, just not in the military. He works in Georgia as a hospice chaplain, helping provide spiritual comfort to those who are dying. He believes his pardon helped him get the job.
But he wasn’t successful in his attempts to enlist in the military. Vasser said he applied to be a chaplain in the National Guard and the Army, but he was rejected. He said he had conversations with recruiters for the Air Force and Navy and was told his application would not be successful. Vasser said he still feels privileged to have become a chaplain.
“For the most part, I’m happy where I am as a hospice chaplain. It’s great income. It’s solid work,” he said. “I’m doing what I wanted to do.”
Wisconsin National Guard spokesperson Joseph Trovato said having a criminal record doesn’t prohibit someone from joining the Guard, but it would require a waiver seeking an exception to policy. Certain serious felonies or domestic violence convictions are not eligible for waiver consideration. Trovato said he couldn’t say whether someone who was pardoned would be able to join the guard because “all recruitment occurs on a case-by-case basis.”
Klingele said employers, licensing boards, recruiters and other organizations may not restrict someone with a criminal record outright, but those groups have discretion when making decisions. So a conviction can play a role, even if someone has a pardon, she said.
“People need to be held accountable when they commit crime, but the general social contract is supposed to be that once they serve their sentence then … they get to be part of the community fully,” Klingele said. “They have hopefully repaired the harm that was done — to the best of their ability, at least — and they get to move forward. What is problematic is all of the formal and informal ways that we have made that almost impossible for a lot of people.”
Anthony Cooper Sr., 44, is the CEO of Focused Interruption, a local organization that aims to prevent and address violent crime, and the vice president of reentry services and strategic partnerships for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, a group that works to strengthen Madison’s African American community. He was pardoned in February 2021 for dealing drugs and fleeing police more than 20 years ago.
Within the first month of being released from prison, Cooper said he applied for roughly 480 jobs and got rejected from all but one. He caught a break at Papa John’s Pizza.
Robinson had a similar experience when applying for jobs after serving her sentence for using the store credit of another person.
“I didn’t want to try to apply for certain jobs because (of) that question: Have you been convicted of a felony?” Robinson said. “Every time I told the truth, I never got the job.”
While getting her bachelor’s degree in social work, Robinson said she got an internship at a domestic violence shelter and ended up getting hired full-time as a case manager, even with her record — something she’s extremely grateful for.
‘Change is possible’
Now that Robinson’s been pardoned and has become a probation officer, she feels she can advance her career without her felony holding her back.
“I felt like a weight was lifted. I felt more confident about myself,” Robinson said. “It made me feel resilient.”
Cooper said news articles written about his years of community work helped him overcome barriers even before he was granted clemency. But now his pardon is another way to “explain who I am to people who don’t know me,” he said. Having the pardon already helped when he was looking for a new apartment recently.
But Cooper said his pardon is about more than just making life easier to navigate. It’s also for his wife, sons and grandchildren. It’s a document that shows “change is possible.”
“Me getting a pardon, it’s not just about me,” Cooper said. “It’s about … being able to show generations to come that we all make bad choices in our lives, but it’s about how we come from that.”
Even though she didn’t become a nurse, Morrow said getting her pardon was still “a really wonderful experience.” Morrow said she was always embarrassed by having a felony conviction “hanging over my head.” Now she feels relief.
“It just meant so much to have the state of Wisconsin say that they recognize that I’ve made amends and have turned my life around,” she said.
It’s unclear how long that opportunity will remain. Evers is running for reelection this fall, and the top Republican candidates running against him have not stated a position on pardons.
Cooper said that worries him.
“It gave me a restart that I never thought would come true,” Cooper said. “I’m forever thankful for that.”