The Pardoners

in Features

Virginia Downing, 61, can legally say she’s never committed a crime.

Search “Virginia Downing” on any database of court records, and you’ll get nothing. Her record is spotless, indistinguishable from that of the most average, law-abiding citizen.

Yet ask her, and she’ll tell you that she’s been arrested “three or four times” in Fair Haven. She began cooking and selling crack in the early 1990s, when she was bored and unemployed. Her friends would come to her apartment after work, begging her to supply them. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she intones. She sighs, accentuating the wrinkles on her weathered face.

The last time Downing was arrested, in 1998, the police officer said to her, “Mrs. Downing, could you please find something else to do?” That’s when she realized she’d had enough. “They never found any guns on me or anything. I didn’t open my house for that,” she says. “I just wanted company. But it just wasn’t worth it anymore.”

The secret to her clean public record? She was pardoned.

In 2008, Connecticut removed Downing’s criminal conviction records from public view. A previously convicted felon may apply for a Connecticut state-issued pardon five years after committing a felony or three years after a misdemeanor.

Downing spent the five years after her conviction getting clean, working at Krispy Kreme and Olive Garden, and volunteering at Mothers for Justice, an advocacy group for low-income women. From her sobriety, employment, and community service work, she built a pardon application that stressed how the woman she had become was different from the one who once illegally sold drugs and alcohol.

To hear Downing tell it, the pardon she received saved her life. “It means a wonder to have a pardon, it means I can start my life over with a clean slate,” she tells me over pizza. “My son, my daughter, my four grandkids, they’re all so proud of me” It’s been easier to get jobs, too, since employers no longer reject her after completing a background check.

It’s been thirteen years since Downing stopped selling crack. She now works as a crossing guard in New Haven, and sells homemade pies on the side. In some ways, she says her pie-baking business fills the void left when she stopped selling drugs. She often sells pies to her friends when they stop by her house.

Downing seems to be proof that people really can change, and that makes me feel good. But then I ask her if having a pardon means she’ll never return to her criminal ways.

“I’m trying to stay away from that for sure. These days I do my baking, I belong to a church, I’m trying to straighten my life out,” she says. Then, she adds a surprising concession: “You know, sometimes I am tempted to go back into selling drugs. Hopefully I won’t, but hey, we all have our personal hang-ups.”

“What’s the sense in getting a pardon if you’ll go back on your word?” she adds, and I’m quick to agree. But perhaps the ease with which a pardon permits a felon to deceive explains why, despite how nice Downing seems, much of society may be uneasy with the notion of legal pardons. Criminal records serve a purpose: they provide warning signs to society to watch for recidivists. Some convicts who apply for pardons have physically assaulted people, and some have killed. Last year, the state of Connecticut pardoned four hundred three formerly convicted felons; that’s four hundred three people who can legally say they never committed the crime for which they once were found guilty.

Tirzah Kemp, who helps people like Downing apply for pardons, has three appointments scheduled before her lunch break. One is with a man who holds a double homicide conviction, and two are with men who were arrested for possession of a firearm. It’s the beginning of a typical Thursday morning.

Tirzah, known to her friends as “Tee,” works in a small office tucked away on the second floor of New Haven’s City Hall. There, she works for the city’s Prison Reentry Initiative, a program launched in 2008 to offer resources and advice to formerly incarcerated residents — “everything from where to buy bus passes to how to draft a resume,” Kemp likes to say. Kemp’s work puts her in a good position to help ease societal concerns about pardons.

Kemp is the typical social worker: friendly, motherly, efficient. She takes care to ask clients if they’ve spoken to their parents, if they have enough food stamps, whether or not they’re happy.

Her office is covered with posters that encourage felons to vote or apply for housing or claim their civil rights. She grins when she tells me — as she often does — about clients of hers who have gone on to find gainful employment and turn their lives around.

In short, she seems born for this job. But until roughly a decade ago, she had never heard of it.

“I started working here after I got my felony,” she tells me the first time we meet. The public record will tell you that on September 6, 1999, she was convicted for assault in the second degree after stabbing her ex-boyfriend with a knife. She will add that it was the result of a short, tumultuous relationship that often turned violent.

Before her arrest, she’d never thought about felons or the lives they lead. But then came her charge and soon after, the three years on probation, the inevitable questions from her kids, the public stigma, the drawn-out job search. “But I always had a passion for helping people,” she’ll tell you. “I always tell people I didn’t choose to work with former offenders as a career path, it kind of chose me.”

A former felon herself, Kemp empathizes with her clients. But if Kemp stands at the pearly gates, helping some to get pardons and start anew, she also wants the chance to enter. For this reason, she decided in 2009 to begin her own pardon application.

When I first contacted Amy Meek, Kemp’s colleague and the Reentry Initiative director, she did not want to talk to me about pardons.

“Advocates in the area of prisoner reentry really struggle with the press,” she told me over a phone call. “The fundamental issue is there is a lot of stigma associated with having a criminal conviction, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not.” Some reporters write about “ex-cons” or “felons,” unaware that these terms pigeonhole those trying to move on with their lives. Many don’t do background research. Most were probably brought up to believe that once someone becomes a criminal, they will always be one.

It is this perception that Amy fears. “The media too often stereotypes what someone looks like who has a criminal conviction. There’s an idea that they are a bunch of big, bad guys. But it’s estimated that nearly one in every four adults has a criminal conviction. So it’s not just about bad guys.”

She’s right: according to a March 2011 study by the National Employment Law Project, nearly sixty-five million Americans have some sort of criminal record. That’s about a fifth of the population of the United States.

We’re on Kemp’s second appointment of the day, a twenty-eight-year-old black man named Smith Smith. He was convicted in 2009 for carrying a firearm and was released from jail this past January, on parole until this July. He’s here to work on his resume.

Kemp sees a lot of people like Smith, who ask about resumes and job searches. Getting a job is difficult for anyone in this recessed economy, but for a convicted felon, it is nearly impossible. On top of this, the advocacy non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch estimated that nearly 3.5 million Americans are ineligible for federal housing based on their criminal records. Unsurprisingly, many are forced into homelessness and debilitating poverty — conditions that inspire some to return to a life of crime.

I ask Smith what he’ll do if his criminal conviction bars him from getting a job.
“I mean right now, I need money,” he says. “In the future I want to further my education and stuff. I don’t have much family support. I’ve never been a person who got into trouble, but I was caught at the wrong time. It’s always been hard to get jobs, but by having this big felony on me it’s going to be really hard. I know that.”

At this point Kemp interjects and asks me if I’ve read The New Jim Crow, a book by American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michelle Alexander. I haven’t.

“Read it. This is a perfect example of what she’s talking about,” she says gesturing towards Smith. “You have a black gentleman who made a very, very poor decision, no doubt. Rather than him getting an education or changing his behavior, he was incarcerated. The warehouse of his mind was not cultivated. And he’s coming home with the same mental behavior, if not more angry, and now the system will not allow him to right his wrong.”

Smith, who seems not to have thought about his conviction in those terms before, seems a bit taken aback. He is straight out of jail, quick to laugh, still optimistic that he can get his life back. He keeps telling me that he’s sure he’ll get a job.

Kemp joins in. “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be when I got my felony either,” she says. She had a job at that point and maintained her employment. But then she had her second son and took some time off. When she began searching for a new job, things were different. These days, employers can look up everything online, and even a cursory background check reveals her second-degree assault. They saw her felony, she said, and assumed she was prone to violence. Kemp thinks that few looked past her criminal record.

She stops typing up his resume for a moment to do a quick Google search for job openings. She has a point to make. “Look, here’s one.” It’s for kitchen maintenance work, a dishwasher. “You must have some experience in the kitchen,” she reads. “You must be able to pass a criminal background check.” She laughs at the requirement as if it were obviously absurd. For a moment, I wonder what’s so ludicrous: if I were working in a kitchen, I’d want some confidence that the dishwasher wasn’t a murderer. But then I realize the sort of criminal record Kemp means is probably something like possessing marijuana fifteen years ago — not the kind of crime that would put me or anybody else in our kitchen at risk. New Haven’s Board of Alderman have recently been thinking along similar lines as Kemp, voting on April 2 to make it easier for former felons to obtain street vendor licenses from the city. The Collateral Consequences Ordinance should help the one in seven applicants for street vendors licenses in New Haven who have been turned away because of their criminal records.

Kemp continues, it’s not that people with criminal records can’t get jobs. They can. They just have to know how to market themselves.

That’s where she can be of most help. There are certain tricks of the trade. She tells her clients that when an employer asks about their records, they should first explain that they regret their past actions and have learned from their mistakes. Then they should list all of the positive efforts they’ve made since then to reintegrate into the community. It’s a science: after they’ve established that they take full responsibility for their actions, they draw the employers’ attention away from their crimes and onto their progress.

Smith asks if she can write that down for him, and they both laugh. Start studying tonight, she jokes. Then she’s serious again: “Right now your record outweighs your skills. But with the correct marketing, it can be the opposite. I feel frustrated when guys come to me and say no one’s going to hire me because of my record. I’ve been doing this ten years now, and I don’t believe that’s true.”

She prints out his completed resume and continues searching for jobs online. Voila! A Connecticut company is looking for a truck tire changer. A valid driver’s license is the only requirement. She prints this out for him as well. We’re at the end of his appointment.

“Good luck,” I say to Smith as he puts his resume in his bag and gets up to leave.

“I need it,” he replies.

We’ve gone the whole conversation without bringing up one crucial fact: everything comes back to the pardon.

With a pardon, people like Smith don’t have to worry about employers conducting background checks. They don’t have to worry about being stopped at international borders. They don’t have to hedge when someone asks their criminal history.

Pardons can sometimes seem like an elusive holy grail. But where do they actually come from? While pardons can feel like the touch of Grace, gratuitous and redeeming, they are in fact doled out by the human hands of Connecticut state employees.

Only a short distance from the Waterbury train station lies a large, gray circular building, home to the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles. Here, a board of eight reads and evaluates each pardon application. Here, the fate of people like Kemp and Smith hangs in the balance. Last year, nine hundred twenty-five people applied for pardons. Slightly more than one-third of these were granted.

On the fifth floor near the cubicles, Andrew Moseley, the official board manager, sits down at his desk. He is a black man of average height, soft-spoken and serious. He speaks slowly, with deliberation. When I ask him what the board looks for in a successful pardon application, he says it varies based on factors like how many convictions a person has or what type of life they led before their arrest.

“Suitability trumps eligibility every time,” he says. “The board likes to see people doing community service, we look for things like education, good references. They also look for a person’s sincerity in the application process. We look for honestly. We’re not interested in people who deny the veracity of their conviction because we’re not rehashing a case, simply going over what has been done since then.”

The board also looks at things like whether or not applicants have kept up with child support payments, what their family history is like, and if they have a clean motor vehicle record. If the board decides not to grant a pardon, it might still grant a provisional pardon — a certificate ex-felons can show employers that says the state deems them fit to work.

But Moseley acknowledges what I’ve often heard Kemp complain about: provisional pardons are not as effective as they could be because the certificate lists all the crimes for which a person was convicted. When employers see that list, the provisional pardon becomes a reason to reject an application rather than accept it. Moseley said the board is working to create a provisional pardon that does not list criminal activity, but this may not happen for another year or two.

Moseley sees his office as working with the Kemps and Smiths of the world rather than against them. He speaks with pride about Connecticut’s generous pardon system and believes strongly that pardons afford previously convicted felons a much-needed chance to reintegrate back into society.

Pardons allow people to get a new start, a real new start,” he says. “You’re back. Despite the years that have gone by, you’re back to never having been convicted.”

Kemp's office is located in City Hall, where she works for the Prison Reentry Initiative.

Going back is easier said than done. The pardon application is fourteen pages long, with three additional pages for references. Like a college application, it asks for personal background information, a list of community service activities, and a few essays on why you should be granted a pardon.

Kemp tells me it took her roughly seven months to compile her own pardon application, which required hunting down old job supervisors for recommendations, getting fingerprinted at the police station, and tracking down her written arrest record. “Putting the pardon package together and realizing how much I’d accomplished made me extremely proud of where I’ve come since the incident,” Kemp says.

She even asked her fourteen-year-old son to write a letter on her behalf (“Why should Mommy get a pardon?” she remembers asking him), adding that she left his letter unedited so that his voice “really comes through.” She chokes up as she remembers what he wrote: “My mother is a very good mom… she teaches me the way to grow up so my life can be better than hers.”

At this point, Kemp pulls out her own pardon application to show me. It’s a huge packet, probably at least thirty pages long. As I read through, I am struck by the sincerity one passage in particular:

“A pardon will allow me the opportunity to live life on a clean slate, claim my freedom, and peace of mind,” she writes in Section 13: Purpose of Application. “My mother has been by my side through my transformation and I would love to show her how I have moved on with my life for the good.”

For Kemp, the stakes are high. If she loses her job, she might once again face hostile employers. When she decides it’s time for her family to move homes, she will once again have to apply for subsidized housing. More than these practicalities, a pardon would finally divorce her crime from her character.

“I made a bad choice and I had to overcome it,” she says. For a moment, she is quiet. “I used to be extremely ashamed of myself. I couldn’t even talk about it without crying. I want the understanding that my crime is something that happened to me personally, but it’s not who I am.”

Now, her resume is more impressive than any college applicant’s: she has worked for half a dozen community service organizations, raised two children and helped low-income families file their taxes. Everything backs up her claim that she has learned from her mistakes, that she has changed. If she’s not who Manager Moseley is looking for, then who is?

The board took six months to get back to her with a decision. All in all, the process had taken a year. The return envelope carried only a slip of paper: the board could not offer her a pardon at this time. Try again at a later date.

The board stipulated that Kemp had not waited enough time to fully understand the seriousness of her offense. She disagrees. She says that unlike Downing, she would never even be tempted to reoffend.

“The day I got the denial letter was a Saturday morning,” she says, her eyes welling with tears as she recounts the memory. “I got the mail, opened the letter, read it, and I cried for 10 minutes. I wanted to give up. For a moment I was selfish and hurt, but then I woke up on Monday morning, got my kids dressed for school and went to work.” Unlike the hundreds of unemployed pardon-seekers in Connecticut, Kemp was lucky to find solace in her job.

For a while, Kemp felt ashamed to give pardon advice to her clients after having been denied herself. She participated in two training sessions to learn more about the application process and soon enough felt ready to teach again.

As I get up to hand Kemp back her pardon application, I notice two placards that hang from her desk. One is a prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

The other, a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself… Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.

It strikes me that perhaps the tragedy of the pardon process is that self-transformation can’t change a person’s place in society.

When does a crime become forgivable? And from whom is forgiveness sought?

From what I gathered from Downing, Kemp, and Smith, a pardon is more than a legal construct designed to give convicted felons back their full civil rights. It is also a vehicle for social absolution, an indication that the state — and perhaps society as well — has forgiven their crime.

Kemp, Smith, and the other pardon-seekers with whom I spoke all seemed eager to win me over to their side. In some sense, I was their surrogate for the state, someone on whom they could test-drive their new identities. And in some ways I was an easier critic. I could forgive their offenses because, well, they seemed to be genuinely trying to be better law-abiding citizens. It probably helped that their crimes seemed to be isolated, true mistakes.

But then I was called up by a man who, thirty years ago, killed two people. He introduced himself as Michael Constantopoulos, one of Kemp’s clients. He’d heard I was writing an article about “people like me” and wanted to get involved.

We arrange to meet at dusk, the intersection of night and day, at a church on the corner of Wall and Orange. I decide to bring a friend. On the way over, I am conflicted. On the one hand, Constantopoulos had been polite and friendly on the phone, and I want to believe that the thirty years since his crime had made him someone other than a man who could kill two people. On the other, I can’t quite forget what his public record indicates: that he destroyed the lives of two people, two families, and probably countless friends. It seems appropriate that here is a slight chill in the evening breeze.

“Thank you so much for coming,” he says, holding the door to the church open for me. “I really appreciate what you’re doing.”

Constantopoulos has an open, honest face and is quick to bring up what I hesitate to ask. He was involved in a double homicide at the age of sixteen, then spent twenty-three years in prison. When I ask him for details, he says he doesn’t want to disrespect the victims by giving his side of the story. The public record reveals that Constantopoulos killed Reginald Hillyard and Chantel Grey after a car chase and altercation. He shot Hillyard five times.

“I came from a good family, but I chose the wrong friends and made the wrong decisions, trying to lead a life that wasn’t mine,” he says with a sad smile. “Some people call prison hell, but whatever you want to call it, it was a purification by fire. I went in as a boy and came out a man.”

In prison, he took a class in business education, trained as a tutor, and volunteered at a local hospital. Constantopoulos is quick to attribute his progress to the prison officers, counselors and nurses who worked with him in prison, all of whom believed he could change.

As he speaks, I am drawn to Constantopoulos in a way I didn’t expect. He is eloquent, clearly educated, and generous with his time and his responses.

Though only released from prison two weeks ago, Constantopoulos has already secured a job working as a peer mentor at South Central Behavioral Health Network — a group that works to stabilize people who abuse substances. He hopes eventually to train to be a nurse but knows this will be nearly impossible with his record. A pardon might be too much to hope for, he adds.

When I ask Kemp about Constantopoulos, she agrees. But he should live as though he might one day get a pardon, she adds.

“I take full responsibility for my crime. I understand that there is nothing, nothing that will make amends for that, so I don’t expect to be pardoned outright,” Constantopoulos says. He looks straight at me. “I would hope that I receive some sort of recognition for amends I’ve tried to make since then. No matter what, I’ll always be deeply remorseful about my crime.”

Again, I am struck by how much he seems to want my acceptance, my forgiveness. Perhaps what he seeks is not so much a state pardon as a human pardon, one that will allow him to live one step at a time, one civil right at a time, as a normal citizen.

As we stand up to leave, I ask him what changed. When did he stop being the Michael who killed two people and start being the one who volunteers at hospitals?

He says it happened one day in 1993 as he walked down a prison hallway, four years into his sentence. He was done being angry, done blaming others for his time. Reality had set in: he was going to be here a while. He found God, befriended his fellow inmates, and decided to get his life “back on track.”

Five months later, Smith has secured a job at ShopRite, a local supermarket, while Constantopoulos now works at the New Life Corporation, a New Haven non-profit that helps lower income families become financially secure. Soon, Tee will move on from her job at City Hall to become the coordinator of community partnerships at BOOST!, which aims to reduce the achievement gap in New Haven’s public schools. All the while, Kemp has begun the process of reapplying for a pardon. She should be done within the next two months, she says, after she compiles fingerprints and her state police background information. Then she’ll wait, hoping, praying that the state will finally recognize her as more than her crime.

Once, I asked Kemp if she felt that a pardon would diminish the seriousness of her assault. She looked down at her pardon application before answering.

“I think the seriousness of my offense has been diminished by the work I’ve done in the community,” she said. “So yes, my offense was extremely serious, but now I’ve given back as well. There comes a time when everyone deserves a chance to show that they have paid their debt back to society. It takes a person to diminish the seriousness of an offense, it took me to do that.”

Perhaps unknowingly, Kemp has hit upon what’s really at stake. The pardon is not so much about the state, or really even about the restoration of legal rights. The process is about us ­— about whether or not we as a society can accept that a person can change — and whether or not we can truly forgive those who err.

Pardons restore economic power, they help convicts free themselves from the shackles of their guilt, and they give people social absolution. Can we, as members of society, face up to that final challenge to forgive, to allow someone who has paid her dues to reenter society, and to treat her as we would any law-abiding citizen?

We are all the pardoners.

Photo by Joy Shan

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