The governor of Wisconsin announced on Tuesday that he granted 30 pardons, primarily to people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
This raises the total number of pardons issued so far by Gov. Tony Evers (D) to 337 during his first three years in office, the most granted by a governor in the state’s history at this point into a first term. Advocates have been urging state and federal executives to exercise this type of authority, particularly for cannabis cases as more jurisdictions enact legalization.
“I’m proud of our work to give a second chance to folks who’ve made amends and paid their debt to society,” Evers said in a press release. “These individuals have recognized and acknowledged their past mistakes, and this sends a powerful message of redemption as each of them work to build a brighter, better future for themselves and their communities.”
Of the 30 cases pardoned on Tuesday, 21 of them were related to the sale or possession of a controlled substance.
“Matthew Callaway was in his late teens when he sold marijuana to an officer 16 years ago,” a description of one cases says. “He resides in Colorado, where he aspires to become a firefighter.”
“Leon Howard was 19 years old when officers found marijuana at his residence,” another says. “Living in Milwaukee, he has supported his neighborhood by organizing back-to-school block parties and street clean-ups on top of working two jobs.”
Receiving a pardon doesn’t mean that a person’s record is expunged under Wisconsin law. Rather, it’s an official act of forgiveness that restores rights like being able to serve on a jury, hold public office or receive certain professional licenses. People can apply for clemency, and they’re eligible for pardons if it’s been at least five years since they completed their sentence, with no other pending criminal charges.
Drug laws are especially punitive in Wisconsin, where efforts to legalize marijuana, for example, have consistently stalled in the legislature despite the fact that the governor has pushed for reform.
That said, there are lawmakers who are working to enact policy changes. Just last month, a bipartisan pair of legislators introduced a bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. In August, three senators separately filed legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use in the state.
As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for a first offense. People convicted of a subsequent offense would face a felony charge punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison.
Evers tried to legalize recreational and medical marijuana through his proposed state budget earlier this year, but a GOP-led legislative committee stripped the cannabis language from the legislation in May. Democrats tried to add the provisions back through an amendment the next month, but Republicans blocked the move.
Other Republican lawmakers have filed bills to more modestly decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, but none of those proposals advanced during this year’s session.
Evers held a virtual town hall event in April where he discussed his cannabis proposal, emphasizing that polling demonstrates that Wisconsin residents back the policy change.
Locally, Wisconsin voters in three jurisdictions last year approved non-binding advisory questions in favor of marijuana legalization. Those moves came after Wisconsinites overwhelmingly embraced cannabis reform by supporting more than a dozen similar measures across the state during the 2018 election.
Late last year, city officials in the state’s capital, Madison, voted to remove most local penalties for cannabis possession and consumption, effectively allowing use by adults 18 and older.
But as lawmakers move to advance any number of reform proposals in the Badger State, there are still people facing the consequences of criminalization in the interim—and that’s where executive pardons can come in and help.
Evers might have set a record for pardons in Wisconsin, but he’s not the only governor in the U.S. who’s taking proactive steps to provide relief.
In May, the governor of Pennsylvania pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That came months after he granted expedited pardons for low-level cannabis offenses for 69 people.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) said recently that one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment.
After signing a bill to double the marijuana possession limit for adults in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) then directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for the new limit who he may be able to pardon.
Last year, the governor of Illinois announced more than 500,000 expungements and pardons for people with low-level marijuana offenses on their records. The massive clemency and records clearing sweep came about one year after the state’s legal cannabis market launched.
In June, more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level marijuana possession in Nevada were automatically pardoned under a resolution from the governor and Board of Pardons Commissioners.
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has also issued pardons for cannabis offenses.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden has been facing pressure from numerous advocates and lawmakers to use his executive power to grant relief to those with marijuana convictions on their records.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that the president has “every intention of using his clemency power,” but she declined to give specifics about when any presidential action might actually happen.
“Biden needs to lean on his executive authority now. He has been delaying and underutilizing it so far,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said last week, adding that he could use his authority to advance a number of progressive causes like marijuana reform.
The congresswoman was among the first to suggest that Biden use executive authority to advance marijuana reform, joining 36 of her colleagues on a letter to the president in February that implored him to grant mass pardons to people with federal cannabis convictions. Biden recently received a follow-up letter demanding a status update.
A pair of Republican lawmakers last week sent Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris a separate letter criticizing their “lack of action” and “continued silence” on marijuana reform and urging the administration to reschedule cannabis under federal law. They first made the request in July.
These are just the latest examples of legislators taking a demand for reform directly to the president, who has disappointed advocates in his first year in office by declining to take meaningful steps to change the country’s approach to cannabis despite campaigning on a pro-decriminalization and pro-rescheduling platform.
Since the election, neither the president or vide president—who sponsored a legalization bill while serving in the Senate—have spoken about their cannabis campaign pledges. And so far, the only pardons to take place under the Biden administration have benefited turkeys at a ceremonial Thanksgiving event.
That’s despite the repeated pleas of lawmakers and advocates.
Last month, a group of senators separately sent a letter urging Biden to use his executive authority to grant a mass pardon for people with non-violent marijuana convictions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who led that letter, said during a recent interview that Biden could boost the economy and promote racial equity with the “stroke of a pen” by granting the relief.
A recently published Congressional Research Service (CRS) report affirmed that the president has it within his power to grant mass pardons for cannabis offenses. It also said that the administration can move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.
Relatedly, a group of more than 150 celebrities, athletes, politicians, law enforcement professionals and academics signed a letter that was delivered to Biden in September, urging him to issue a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all people with non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
Warren and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) separately sent a letter to the attorney general in October, making the case that the Justice Department should initiate a marijuana descheduling process in order to “allow states to regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws, and facilitate valuable medical research.”
The White House said in August that the president was looking into using his executive authority to grant clemency to people with certain non-violent drug convictions.
In April, Psaki was pressed on Biden’s clemency promise for people with federal marijuana and said that process will start with modestly rescheduling cannabis—a proposal that advocates say wouldn’t actually accomplish what she’s suggesting.