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Forgiveness for the holidays: Gov. Brown's criminal pardoning tradition

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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Governor Jerry Brown has brought back a practice that has fallen out of favor with recent California governors: giving felons a pardon.

Every year he and his team review the applications for clemency from former convicts asking Gov. Brown for the favor. To date, he's granted more than 700 pardons.

Laurel Rosenhall has reported on this for Calmatters.

She says that the decision to offer forgiveness from the Governor comes after careful planning and consideration.

"The governor's office is really clear that this is only for people who can prove that they have been leading an upstanding life for at least the last ten years," Rosenhall tells Take Two's A Martinez. "They have to go through the court to get what they call a certificate of rehabilitation in which the court kind of certifies that the person has had no criminal record. Then they have to apply to the governor's office. The governor is pretty guarded about his decision-making process."

Rosenhall says that there are a couple of different ways that someone can apply. 

"Some of them apply directly," she says. "That means that they themselves wrote an application ...  And they're interesting. They kind of tell their own personal story.

"Other people have a lawyer apply for them through that process there's a little bit less transparency as far as getting a hold of those applications. Some of these are available from last year. there are some interesting stories there."

What is actually given in the pardoning

When someone is convicted of a felony, they lose a lot of rights, even after they've been released. That includes the ability to vote, own a gun or even various professional licenses.

"Even some apartment complexes won't rent to someone with certain kinds of convictions," Rosenhall says.

"The pardon doesn't erase someone's record, but it does restore their rights. So people that are granted a pardon can regain the rights. For example to serve on a  jury, own a gun, vote, etc."

Restoring an old tradition from California governors

Rosenhall says that pardons used to be much more common among California governors. Jerry Brown's father, Governor Pat Brown, granted over 500. Ronald Reagan granted more than 600 in his time as governor. 

But that practice died out in the 1990's when so-called 'tough on crime' practices grew to prominence

"The last three governors literally had less than 20 [pardons] a piece," Rosenhall says. "He's kind of a blockbuster in this area He has granted more than 700 pardons since he became governor again in 2011. It's very likely that he will be announcing more between now and Christmas."

Pardons may have fallen out favor in the decades before, but, "Jerry Brown is bringing back a much more old-school tradition," Rosenhall says

Forgiveness for the holidays

These pardons have come every year around Christmastime. While it might seem a bit on the nose, Rosenhall says that this is in line with Gov. Brown's faith.

"Jerry Brown is Catholic and early in his life was a Jesuit Seminarian. Clearly, his faith works its way into his leadership in interesting ways," she says.

But besides that, there's also a long-standing tradition of government authority figures pardoning those with criminal records for the holiday season. One well-sited example is when President Andrew Johnson provided a blanket pardoned for those who rebelled against the United States in the Civil War.

Rosenhall explained that one expert she spoke to says, "The Christmastime pardon became more common in the late 1800's and early 1900's when prison wardens would make lists of inmates who should be freed on Christmas. And so this has become a political custom in our country."

To heart the full conversation, click the blue player above.

Answers have been edited for clarity.