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Pardons From Kentucky's Governor Don't Wipe Away Charges Completely

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

On Friday, Elsmere resident Rachel Gibson got a letter in the mail from former Gov. Steve Beshear.

It was a pardon.

“I feel like I just got let out of prison,” Gibson said. “Even though I’m not in prison and haven’t been. The only thing compared to this is having my kid and grandkids, I believe.”

In 2006, Gibson, now 52, was convicted of cocaine possession, a class D felony and the only criminal charge on her record. She enrolled in a recovery center and eventually got a job working at the center. She still works there today.

But that single criminal blemish on her record prevented her from getting a job more than once and, more upsetting, kept her from chaperoning events for her grandchildren at their school.

“It’s like you’re punished for the rest of your life for that one-time thing," she said.

Gibson is one of 201 people who received full pardons from Beshear on his last day in office. Beshear said his office received more than 3,400 applications for pardons.

“I am convinced that these individuals deserve a second chance at life with a clean record,” Beshear said in a news release announcing the pardons.

But those who were granted pardons won’t have the charges cleared from their criminal records, exactly.

Full pardons restore civil rights such as the ability to vote, own a gun, run for public office and serve on a jury. They also remove barriers to obtaining a variety of government services, certifications and licenses.

But the charges will still pop up on background checks. And private employers would still be able to deny employment to someone who has received a pardon, said Tim Arnold, the post-trial director at Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy.

“In the basic level of whether or not you have a conviction, the conviction is supposed to be null and void by the pardon,” Arnold said. “But that doesn’t mean much to the employer who runs the records check.”

The only way someone can get a criminal conviction cleared from their record is to get an expungement. Kentucky law only allows misdemeanors to be expunged, though a bill that would expand the law to include class D felonies will likely be proposed in the upcoming legislative session.

The consequences of a criminal conviction are widespread, ranging from drug offenders disqualified from receiving food stamps to felony offenders disqualified from obtaining chiropractic licenses, according to a Department for Public Advocacy collateral consequences handbook.

Although a pardon won’t give someone a clean record in the eyes of private-sector employers, it might re-qualify them for licenses, public benefits and state or local government jobs for which they hadn't been eligible, according to Margaret Love, an attorney specializing in pardon law in Washington, D.C.

“There are hundreds of laws and agency rules that say somebody with a conviction, those with a felony conviction cannot work in certain places, have certain licenses, live in certain housing, receive certain public benefits or compete for public contracts,” Love said.

But Deputy Public Advocate Damon Preston said it's unclear whether the state would restore the rights to certain licenses, government jobs or benefits, even if a pardon is granted.
"The standing court opinion would say that that person is still convicted and still subject to those disabilities," Preston said.

In a 2006 opinion regarding Gov. Ernie Fletcher's controversial pardons, the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled that a pardon restores civil rights and relieves an ex-offender from legal consequences, but it can't prevent "any and all consequences of the pardoned offense" and that "collateral consequences may still follow."

"For example, an attorney who has been pardoned for the offense of forgery may not be punished for that crime, but may be disbarred as a result of that offense," the opinion states.

Preston said despite the Kentucky Supreme Court's opinion, public officials might not be aware of it.

"So if somebody comes and says, 'I want to get a license,' and when they say, 'what about that conviction,' they say 'it’s been pardoned, here’s my certificate,' that’s probably just worked itself out more often than not, and they’re just issued the license," Preston said.

Gibson said her felony conviction has prevented her from advancing to better-paid positions within her workplace. But that might change — she said her bosses were impressed by her pardon.

“I’m really excited that who I work for, as far as they’re concerned, I don’t have a felony charge,” Gibson said. “But I don’t know how that’s going to work for the rest of the world, you know what I mean?”

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