Forgive Us Our Trespasses

by on December 4th, 2005

About 12 years ago, I joined an organization where I met a man I’ll call “Joe.” Joe is one of those people everyone knows, because he’s nothing if not memorable. A generally happy fellow, he works hard, plays hard, and speaks gently. Joe never met a stranger. His cheerfulness is matched by vigor and generosity.

Joe is no great intellect, and he doesn’t apologize for it. He has a place in the world, knows what that place is, and fulfills his station in life admirably. He aims to be the best technician he can possibly be, and by all accounts, he is.

Several years ago, Joe quit his good job to take care of a sick family member. When the family member died, Joe went back to work. To hear him talk, it was a privilege to care for the person, not a chore.

Joe works hard for the organization we belong to. He helps people whenever he can, and makes newcomers welcome. He does whatever the organization asks him to do without complaint, often doing jobs others avoid.

Probably the most enlightening thing to be said about Joe is this: In all the years I’ve known him, I have never heard him say an unkind word to anyone or about anyone.

About two years ago, Joe came to me because I am a writer. He was discouraged because his application for pardon had been denied for the second time.

Joe had not always been the pillar of society he is now. At one time, he suffered from an addiction that all but ruined his life. His guilt over hurting his mother made him turn his life around, but not before he was convicted of a felony.

Turning his life around was not a walk in the park; he had legal complications to deal with, and he dealt with them. He had to work to regain the trust of his family and the few friends he had left after years of addiction. Then he had to learn how to live life in the real world, the world those of us without addictions take for granted. And he did.

Patiently, day by day, Joe paid his debt to society and made a new life. He learned to pay his bills, work at a job, and be a member of society. It wasn’t easy, but he did it. At 15 years of sobriety, Joe decided that the one thing he wanted was for the State of Texas to forgive him. He was not looking for a pat on the back. He just wanted the state to tell him that it was true—he was one of those rare gems of the criminal justice system—a fully rehabilitated member of society.

The Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles did not see it his way.

Joe is not alone. In the last four years, the full board has considered 895 petitions for full pardons. It has recommended clemency in 191 of those cases, or just over 21 percent. The governor is not bound by the recommendation of the board, and Governor Rick Perry, that bastion of rectitude, has seen fit to pardon a mere 76 souls. That is fewer than 9 percent of all applications for pardons. God might forgive Joe for his misdeeds, but the State of Texas will not.

One can understand taking a tough stance on crime, but where does tough become overbearing? Joe paid his debt to society, and then some. He is a contributing member of society who pays taxes, supports charities, and helps his neighbors. He has never been in trouble with the law since the day he decided to make his change, but none of this is good enough for the state.

What kind of place cannot recognize rehabilitation after more than 10 years of spotless, indeed exemplary, behavior? One run by politicians whose only concern is staying in office. One where pardoning such a person is perceived as being “soft on crime”. One run by the neo-conservative Republican Party. One I’d like to see changed.

Ann Weaver Hart