In the basement of the State Capitol, there’s a tiny office tucked away belonging to the Secretary of State. The office would be easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. When you walk into the office, directly in front of you is the front desk, and to the right is a contraption you could imagine seeing at a machine shop. It looks like a vise with two brass balls sticking out its top, like an antique that came with the building. In actuality, it’s one of the most important things in the State Capitol: the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin. All official acts of the governor require the state seal, including pardons, which is how I came across the unique contraption and found myself sealing pardons during my internship with the governor’s legal counsel last year.
I have a photo of myself pushing on one of the brass balls as I close the seal down on an official pardon, granted the day before by Gov. Evers. You can tell from the picture that I was smiling pretty hard, but you can’t tell how caught up with emotion I was in that moment. The paper I was stamping with this seal was about to drastically change someone’s life forever.
Life Before Law School
For context it is helpful to understand that growing up I never, ever, could have imagined that I would one day find myself interning for a governor, let alone the governor’s legal counsel. I was born in the border town of El Paso, Texas, to teenage parents living in the projects. I moved to Milwaukee when I was three. My mother completed her GED, picked up the phone book, and called the nearest university, Marquette University, and begged them to let her in, every day, until they finally did. She always emphasized to me to never let pushback hold me down from what I wanted to do in life. And that is how I lived life, pushing through barrier after barrier until I found myself where I’m at today.
I didn’t enter law school until I was 29. I faced a lot of setbacks and obstacles along the way. Milwaukee can be a really hard place to get on your feet if you don’t come from money, and it gets progressively harder the darker your skin tone. I dropped out of college in 2008 to work and I returned to undergrad studies in 2015 and then earned my degree in sociology.
I studied sociology at a time when the United States had just had its first Black president (so racism was “over”), and someone like Donald Trump was running for office against someone who could have been our first woman president. There was so much to study as a sociology major, about racism, sexism, politics, and how law and policy affect communities. I read books for class such as Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, about the disparities in resources between inner-city schools and suburban schools, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, about how after the civil rights movement the war on drugs was used to mass incarcerate people of color. I read Evicted by Matthew Desmond, about poverty and the struggle to maintain housing in Milwaukee, and The Mark of a Criminal Record by Devah Pager, about how white men with criminal records in Milwaukee were more likely to get job callbacks than Black men without criminal records.
This was the lens I came into law school with, understanding that the barriers people of color faced in the United States were structural and intertwined. I understood that not everyone started on an equal playing field and that some people had more barriers than others. I understood what it felt like to have to push through some of those barriers to get where I was, but I knew that there were people who had it harder than me.
One Person’s Misdeeds
Fast forward to my time working with the governor’s legal counsel. Governor Evers had just reestablished the pardon process after eight years of Gov. Walker not granting any pardons. I could not have been more excited to jump in and try to process as many pardon applications as I could. I knew it would be rewarding work to help give a fresh start to as many people as we could. What I didn’t realize, however, was how infuriating the work would be once I realized how easy it is to get a felony conviction and how detrimental a felony conviction can be for a person.
Terry Howell-Dixon is a name that sticks with me. Hers was one of the first pardon applications I read through as an intern. In 1988, Ms. Howell-Dixon was a single mother of eight, attending school and receiving public benefits from the county while finishing her degree. During her last year of schooling she was offered a part-time job, which later turned into a full-time job. Instead of reporting her new income to the county, she used the additional funds she was receiving to purchase school clothes for her kids, a used car for transportation, and to pay for childcare while she worked. But even with the job and the public assistance she was receiving, she was still struggling to make ends meet.
When it was discovered by the county a year later that Ms. Howell-Dixon had failed to report her income, she was charged and convicted of two felony counts – failure to report and food stamp fraud. When she tried to explain her situation to the district attorney, she was told that it was not their fault she had eight kids and that it was her responsibility to take care of her kids. Howell-Dixon was sentenced to eight years’ probation plus full restitution. In 2008, the insurance company where she worked for 20 years had to let her go. Since then, she has been unable to secure any kind of employment.
Effects of Felony Convictions in Wisconsin
Society expects that people convicted of a crime serve their sentence and rejoin the workforce as productive members of society. However, many people fail to understand the barriers faced by those convicted of a crime, especially a felony. In Wisconsin, a felony conviction automatically bars an individual from jobs in education, jobs in healthcare, jobs in law enforcement, and most jobs that require any type of licensing. A felony conviction can hold a person back from getting federal funding for housing as well as education. Jobs, education, and housing are three things society would expect a person to pursue upon completing their sentence.
In Wisconsin, and only 11 other states, state law further prohibits felons from holding public office unless pardoned by the governor. In the Spring 2022 issue of the Marquette Benefits and Social Welfare Law Review, I address how this provision in the Wisconsin Constitution reinforces white supremacy in Wisconsin through the way our state laws are enforced. For example, Wisconsin is the only state in which drinking and driving is punished as a civil forfeiture instead of a criminal charge, and arrests for drinking and driving in Wisconsin are proportional to the racial makeup of the state. However, possession of marijuana is charged as a criminal misdemeanor for a first offense and felony for a second offense, and people of color are disproportionately arrested at higher rates for possession.
Going back to Ms. Howell-Dixon, her story resonated so deeply because I remember how hard it was for me to try to get on my feet at 18, with no kids. I remember the setbacks and obstacles I faced in Milwaukee, as a woman of color, who didn’t come from wealth, trying to find a decent-paying job, safe and affordable housing, transportation, and winter clothes, all basic necessities any human being should have access to. And if I had eight other mouths to worry about feeding, I wouldn’t have wanted to give up that public assistance either.
People With Criminal Records Have Much to Contribute
This in turn gets to the heart of the problem with having a constitutional ban on felons holding public office. If there were more politicians who understood the effects a felony conviction can have on a person, maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to get a felony charge. Or maybe, a felony conviction wouldn’t be so detrimental in the pursuit of creating a better life. I am beyond blessed and privileged to have crossed over from such a difficult background myself, into a career field where I have access to the people who can make the decisions that affect the lives of people in the communities I was raised in. I can write an article for Wisconsin Lawyer and bring awareness about this issue that might not cross the minds of most lawyers, at least those who do not realize how heavy life’s burdens can be on people.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s the beauty of having people of diverse backgrounds at the table where decisions are being made. It doesn’t always benefit society to have the people with the best grades or no criminal record held in the highest regard. It doesn’t make sense to ostracize or hold back the people who have faced bigger obstacles and made bigger mistakes. It is often the people who have seen harder times who carry the most wisdom and foresight into solving issues, and those are the backgrounds we as society need to value more. We, as a society, need to be more proactive in inviting those voices to the table in all that we do, whether that is allowing felons to run for public office, or hiring more diverse voices at our law firms, or recruiting more diversity into our law schools. And not only is it important that we invite those individuals to the table, it is important that we listen to them and take their input seriously. Because they might be the difference between us as a society creating a felon out of a mother of eight who is trying to make ends meet, or us helping that mother get on her feet so that her eight kids can have a brighter future.
Gov. Evers Grants 29 New Pardons
According to a Nov. 12, 2021, press release, Gov. Tony Evers has granted another 29 pardons, bringing total pardons granted by the governor since reinstating the Governor’s Pardon Advisory Board in 2019 to 307. In comparison, Gov. Doyle granted 325 pardons during his eight years as governor, and Gov. Thompson granted 238 during his 14 years in office.
In the press release, Gov. Evers said, “A pardon can be a powerful message for individuals who have worked hard to establish themselves as contributing members of their community – one that recognizes that people are more than their past and acknowledges their efforts to build a brighter future.” Here are a few of Gov. Ever’s latest pardons:
Lateasha Nicole was 28 when she was found in possession of marijuana. A successful small businesswoman, she continues to give back to her community helping domestic violence survivors and those struggling with substance use in Racine.
Matthew Ryan struggled in his mid-twenties with substance use and took money for contracted work without completing the project before writing a series of checks without sufficient funds in his account. He is a veteran and a small business owner who lives with his family in Saukville.
Yussef Morales was 20 when he was pulled over and an officer found marijuana in the vehicle. An active community leader, he founded the Wisconsin Puerto Rican Festival, flew to Puerto Rico to help after Hurricane Maria with the Red Cross, and today, coaches youth sports. He lives with his family in West Allis.
The Wisconsin Constitution grants the governor the power to pardon individuals convicted of a crime. A pardon is an official act of forgiveness that restores rights lost when someone is convicted of a felony, including the right to serve on a jury, hold public office, and hold certain professional licenses. A pardon does not expunge court records.
Under Executive Order #30, individuals convicted of a Wisconsin felony may apply for a pardon if they completed their sentence at least five years ago and have no pending criminal charges. Individuals currently required to register on the sex offender registry are ineligible for a pardon. Executive Order #130 established an expedited review process for applications that meet stricter criteria, including a greater length of time elapsed since sentence completion and nonviolent nature of the offenses.
The Pardon Advisory Board meets monthly to review applications and interview applicants. Watch the hearings live on WisconsinEye at wiseye.org/live.
Meet Our Contributors
Who has most inspired you in your legal career?
I would have to say the individuals who have inspired me the most in my legal career are the more experienced attorneys that have poured into me. I have been so blessed to have individuals further along in their careers who have looked out for me, have offered me guidance, and have been supportive of me standing up for what I believe in.
Discussing racial inequities is not always an easy conversation for most, and I’ve faced a lot of pushback when trying to bring awareness to certain issues. If it wasn’t for the attorneys who have either paved the path ahead of me or have been allies in the work, I might not have had the courage to stand as strongly as I do today. It is my hope to pay that support forward to the law students and attorneys who come after to me, and to encourage them to stand strong in what they believe in. I can’t wait to see what beautiful kind of ripple effect that has on Wisconsin and the legal community.
Felicia L. Owen, The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.
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» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 34-37 (December 2021).