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The best holiday gift? A pardon from Governor Brown

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary Conference in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013
California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary Conference in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013

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Governor Jerry Brown is handing out holiday presents to a few lucky strangers: pardons for one-time criminals who've stayed out of jail, turned their lives around and made positive contributions to their communities. Most governors hand out these pardons from time to time -- but Gov. Brown is handing out far more than his recent predecessors did.

For The California Report, Scott Detrow has the story

Sacramento, like most state capitals, is filled with holiday traditions. Chief among them: Thursday evening’s Capitol Christmas tree lighting, which featured carolers and a barking Sutter Brown.

But the Brown administration has created another holiday tradition, as well: the announcement of pardons for onetime criminals who have stayed out of jail, turned their lives around and made positive contributions to their communities.

Brown has handed out far more pardons --  214 to-date – than any other recent California governor.

“You got your pardon yet?”

It was two days before Christmas last year when Ken Benedict got the surprise phone call: He had been pardoned by the governor.  “I just kind of got the call out of the blue,” Benedict recalled this week. “I was surprised, I was happy.”

More than 20 years ago, when he was just out of high school, Benedict got caught buying supplies for a methamphetamine dealer.  “It was ephedrine, which it isn’t against the law to buy ephedrine,” he said.  “But if you’re going to make drugs with it, it is. I got in trouble. Rightly so. I deserved to go to jail for that.”

Sitting outside a Folsom coffee shop, Benedict called it a dumb mistake. He spent two years in prison, and once he got out he put it behind him.  He has worked for years as a technical architect and volunteers as a high school mentor. Iin 2007, Benedict decided to try to formally close the book on the crime he committed, and began the pardon application process.

Then he waited.  And waited some more. It took five years for the pardon application to make its way from the Sacramento County Courthouse to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the governor’s desk.  “There’s a lot of span of time went by that you always wonder what was going on,” Benedict said. “My mom would always call me, ‘You got your pardon yet? You got your pardon?'‘ And you tell people, ‘Hey I’m going to get a pardon.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, whatever. No one gives pardons.’”

But Gov. Brown does. Benedict is one of 214 people Brown has pardoned since taking office in 2011. Most of them are like Benedict – convicted of drug-related crimes. The pardons are often announced around  Christmas or  Easter.

Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, said the governor takes a “thoughtful” approach to the grants.  “Recognizing that individuals make mistakes,” he said. “And if they’ve paid their debt to society and served their time, and are now serving their communities, that should be recognized. And that’s what this does.”

Brown reverses recent pardon trend

Clemency is always politically tricky territory for governors.  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger caught heat on his last day in office for reducing the manslaughter sentence of the son of a former Assembly speaker.

But in California, pardons are much different than clemency.

Sentences aren’t reduced. In fact, applicants need to be out of prison and off parole for at least 10 years, and maintain a spotless record during that time. They also need to get what’s called a certificate of rehabilitation from the county court. That process involves a background check.  

“And that makes, I think, offering a pardon under those conditions fairly safe,” said Santa Clara University law professor Cookie Ridolphi, who has studied California’s clemency process. “Because this is not a person who is high-risk.”

Pardons are mostly symbolic and don’t expunge a record, though they do restore some rights that felons had lost, including the right to own a firearm.  Still, recent governors have avoided pardons. Schwarzenegger only handed out 16. Republican Pete Wilson granted 13. And Democrat Gray Davis didn’t grant a single pardon.

That makes Brown look like a very aggressive pardoner. But Brown’s spokesman Westrup argued it was the other governors who were out of step with the typical pardon rate.  “Now the Wilson, Schwarzenegger and Davis administration certainly veered away from that history,” he said. “But if you look back at Ronald Reagan, of all people — Gov. Reagan pardoned nearly 600 people. Deukmejian, over 300."

Ken Benedict is happy the trend has reversed itself. “I’m grateful for this process. And I think for people that meet the criteria, that you can be granted a pardon under, I think that opportunity should be available to them,” he said.

Benedict said when you’re pardoned you receive a certificate from the governor’s office. He proudly displays his in his house.