Patricia Plum needs a signature from Gov. Doug Ducey to volunteer in her daughter’s school.
She’s seeking a pardon from the governor because her criminal record prevents her from getting a fingerprint clearance card needed for the volunteer work.
When she was 17, in 1999, she was convicted of a felony for an impaired driving accident that killed a child, according to records from the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. She was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. She got her GED in prison and learned how to be an electrician. Since she left prison, she has earned degrees in social work and now works as an addiction therapist.
While the Clemency Board unanimously recommended a pardon for Plum based on her stellar record since leaving prison, she faces uncertainty on the governor’s desk.
Nearing the end of his first term, Ducey has granted only one pardon, to a man who stole a motorcycle in 1972.
Other pardon recommendations sit dormant, leaving people awaiting a signature that could change their lives in fundamental ways.
Some of them committed crimes at young ages, served their time and rebuilt their lives. Others received sentences the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency found harsh, so they recommended reducing their time in prison. Some seeking pardons want to get jobs to serve their communities, but have hit walls because of their criminal histories. A few are seeking pardons form Ducey as a way to clear their state criminal records in hopes of getting U.S. citizenship.
The governor has granted just five commutations, or reduced sentences, all but one of which were for people who were near death.
For a governor who has repeatedly touted his interest in a more humane criminal justice system that provides real second chances for people, the idea of mercy in the form of pardons or reduced sentences has largely eluded the picture.
And for Plum, her steps forward can’t bring back the 8-year-old girl who died in the 1999 accident. The effects of the accident have stayed with Plum. The board noted Plum had also been seriously injured in the crash, leaving visible scarring on her face, which she has decided not to repair because it serves as a “reminder of that tragic day.”
Plum has forged a relationship with the victim’s family, the board pointed out. She volunteers with the girl’s grandmother for organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Plum made keychains for her family members with the girl’s photo to remind them to be safe and sober drivers, the board said.
Plum told the board she dreams of working as a therapist for female inmates or newly released women. She wants to get a fingerprint card, which would allow her to apply for employment with the Department of Corrections.
Most importantly, the card would allow her to volunteer at her daughter’s school. But the board said it’s “a role which is currently denied to her because of her background.”
Ducey hasn’t yet decided on Plum’s pardon recommendation, which arrived on his desk in January.
Ducey has only reduced a sentence for one person still in prison who wasn’t dying, despite several unanimous recommendations from the board. This week, he denied a reduced sentence for a former police officer, Richard Chrisman, who shot an unarmed man while on duty.
“I have seen virtually no evidence that the governor and his office recognize the important opportunities they have on the clemency and commutation front,” said Larry Hammond, an attorney and president of the Arizona Justice Project.
Ducey’s inaction on pardons falls behind his predecessors in both parties. Jan Brewer, a Republican, granted 13 pardons, though 12 of those came on her last day of office, according to documents from the Clemency Board. Democrat Janet Napolitano granted 22 pardons, the documents show.
Brewer received criticism for her inaction and denials for clemency, with one news report from 2012 saying it’s more likely for someone to get struck by lightning than receive clemency from Brewer.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s spokesman, challenged the idea that Ducey has been inactive on clemency. He said the governor and his staff spend a great deal of time analyzing each case on its unique facts before deciding whether to support or deny a commutation or pardon.
“Just because one hasn’t been granted doesn’t mean we were inactive, it means we took the time to give it the attention it deserves, looked at it closely before making a decision. I think that’s taking a thoughtful approach,” Scarpinato said.
The governor weighs the person seeking the pardon’s case alongside any victims of the crimes they committed, Scarpinato said. He’s “very sensitive” to all sides involved in the clemency process, Scarpinato said.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said prosecutors generally oppose commutations because any facts and circumstances were already considered in a case before it’s resolved in the court system. There are rare instances where facts may come to light later that merit review, but that is “exceedingly rare,” Montgomery said.
“This is someone trying to take a second bite at the sentencing apple,” he said.
Pardons are different, he said. Since people have already served their time and paid their debt to society, it’s fair to review the case and weigh what the person has done since their conviction against any harm to victims or the community, he said.
The clemency process often features divergent narratives from the people seeking absolution and those who prosecuted the case or were victimized by it. And it’s highly political – if someone were granted a reduced sentence, for instance, then went on to commit a crime, the governor would be criticized.
That happened to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who commuted the sentence of a man who then killed four police officers years later. And leniency for criminals helped tank Michael Dukakis’ presidential aspirations after a TV ad attacked him for allowing weekend passes for prisoners, one of whom then kidnapped and murdered a couple.
The political implications of granting pardons, and especially commutations, can’t be ignored, and they exist regardless of party affiliation, said Donna Hamm, the director of Middle Ground Prison Reform. Politicians are always gauging which way the wind blows and trying to avoid angering the electorate, especially if they’re planning for future offices, Hamm said. That’s why most governors or presidents have pardoned a bunch of people on their way out the door, she said.
Ducey’s interest in criminal justice largely has focused on reentry and employment programs for people, which Hamm called a “pretty darn safe” platform. Most people want those leaving prison to get jobs and be successful after they’ve served their time, she said. Doing more than that requires political will.
“I think the governor should always do the right thing, and sometimes that involves political risk-taking. I think he should always do what is right and just, because he has that power. That does involve criticism and unpopular decision-making on some occasions,” she said.
The governor’s interest in criminal justice reform has largely focused on the reentry process, helping people find jobs and access services once they leave prison, Scarpinato said.
“In terms of washing away an entire record, you’d really need to be a very unique circumstance because that’s a big decision for a governor to make after a judge and jury have made a decision and victims have been involved,” Scarpinato said.
In many cases, though, people plead guilty and take responsibility.
Ducey is open to potential changes to laws and policies that hinder people’s ability to live and work if they have criminal records, Scarpinato said.
Pardon recommendations don’t expire, so Ducey can still take action as long as he’s governor. Commutation recommendations, if they’re unanimous decisions by the board, give the governor 90 days to approve or deny. If he doesn’t deny, they are de-facto approved.
The Clemency Board has also been recommending fewer pardons or commutations than it has during past administrations. Under Brewer, the board recommended on average more than 25 commutations and five pardons annually. Under Napolitano, the board recommended more than 50 commutations and six pardons per year.
Under Ducey, there have been just 12 recommended commutations and seven recommended pardons since he took office in 2015.
Hamm, of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said word has likely gotten around to people in prison of the low likelihood of getting a commutation approved. The board has reviewed 964 commutation cases since Ducey took office, recommending only 78 of those move to a second phase for an in-person board hearing.
“I think that information really circulates in the prisons and people throw up their hands and say, why bother,” Hamm said.
The commutation process is all but dead in Arizona, Hamm said. It’s on life support.
Even a unanimous recommendation from the board, despite the difficulty in obtaining it, doesn’t mean the governor will take action.
Myreon Hollingsworth received a unanimous recommendation from the board in May 2017. Because the board voted unanimously and Ducey failed to act on it within 90 days, his commutation was granted even without Ducey’s signature.
Hollingsworth was 15 years old in 2013 when he went with his cousin to buy marijuana from a classmate. The drug deal turned violent, and Hollingsworth’s cousin, Keishaun Green, shot and killed the classmate’s father, Darwin Barnes. Hollingsworth cooperated with police and testified against Green, despite threats he received from the Green family, the board’s letter recommending commutation says.
Hollingsworth pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison, the mandatory minimum.
While in state custody, Hollingsworth was a role model to juvenile offenders, the board said. His former football coach told the board at the commutation hearing that he would offer Hollingsworth a job as a mentor to high school athletes once he was out of prison.
Hollingsworth is still a teenager, but the board found him mature and “evolved.” He wants to go to college and become a counselor, the board noted.
“With so much of his young life remaining, the board believes that Mr. Hollingsworth has the great potential of becoming a happy, productive and responsible member of society, if not an upstanding citizen,” the board concluded.
It was a rare instance where the prosecutors from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office actually supported the commutation.
His sentence was reduced to time served, with community supervision intact. His sentence was previously set to end in June 2020. He was released from prison August 8.
Hollingsworth’s case fits an area of interest for some criminal justice reform groups, who want to see people who committed crimes as teenagers shown grace. The state of New York started a youth pardon program, which granted more than 100 pardons in late 2016 to people who were teens when they committed crimes. The state estimated more than 10,000 people could be granted pardons through the program, according to NPR.
There has so far been just one case Ducey found worthy of a pardon.
Michael Scow was sentenced to two years of probation for theft of a motorcycle in 1972. He had his civil rights restored in 1974 and his right to own a firearm restored in 2013. He worked in maintenance and repairs for police motorcycles for the Reno Police Department and the city of Reno for 28 years, the board noted.
But in December 2013, he was denied a handgun purchase because Nevada law says a person convicted of a felony can’t own a gun unless they have been pardoned.
The board said Scow “embodies the true purpose of Arizona’s criminal justice system” because he hasn’t committed any crimes since his initial conviction, and he has contributed to society and his community.
Ducey granted Scow’s pardon in March 2016.
Hammond, of the Arizona Justice Project, said the governor could take an active interest in clemency and focus on areas like end-of-life release, juveniles and women. Ducey would likely find a lot of support from conservative groups interested in criminal justice changes for those populations, Hammond said.
In recent years, other states have moved forward on more systemic analyses of their prison populations and clemency, Hammond said, but Arizona lags.
“If we’d had this conversation five years ago, I would have said, well, that’s just the way it is in America and the way it is in Arizona. Now, it’s not the way it is in lots of other places. If Ducey really was interested in reexamining the state of incarceration, this is one obvious area and it would be easy to do,” Hammond said.
Still, despite the unlikelihood of receiving a gubernatorial pardon or commutation, Hamm said people in need of Ducey’s signature should always have hope.
She compared getting clemency to winning the lottery.
“Your chances of winning are infinitesimal … but you’ll never win if you don’t buy a ticket,” she said.