A true test of our belief in rehabilitation for ex-offenders

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Gov. Bruce Rauner grants far fewer clemency requests than his predecessor, Gov. Pat Quinn. | AP file photo

I have to wonder: Does it make sense for an ex-offender who has gone on to live an honest life for many years, even for decades, to bother to file for clemency while Bruce Rauner is the governor of Illinois?

Since Rauner became governor in 2015, I have tracked his record of granting clemency, which is a kind of pardon that restores to an ex-offender certain rights, such as the right to vote. It is a recognition that the person is fully rehabilitated, and it may allow the person to have his or her record expunged, removing it from public view. That, of course, is a huge burden lifted for the ex-offender when he or she is applying for a job.

In his first two years in office, Rauner granted clemency in a mere 3.6 percent of the petitions he reviewed. Gov. Pat Quinn, in contrast, granted more than a third of the petitions he reviewed.


Last December, Rauner gave himself a pat on the back for clearing out most of a big backlog of clemency petitions, ignoring the fact that he did so by granting so few and quashing the hopes of many deserving convicted felons who long ago had changed their ways.

Last week, one of my clients became the latest victim of the governor’s poison pen, and I’d love to know why. My client is a man who overcame a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol many years ago. He started working with a tutor several years ago to finally learn to read, his severe dyslexia never having been properly diagnosed or treated at the Chicago public schools he attended. This is a 50-year-old man who has four felony convictions, to be sure — all directly related to his addiction — but who has not committed a crime since he was 23 years old — more than a quarter century ago.

I admit I did not take the news well that my client’s clemency request had been denied. His wife cried on the phone when I told her. I do my best to objectively assess the pros and cons of a potential client’s eligibility for clemency, and this is the first time a client’s clemency request has been denied since I began doing this work in 2012.

We will never know why Rauner denied my client’s request. There are no formal eligibility guidelines. The process is shrouded in secrecy. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board submits a confidential recommendation (yeah or nay) to the governor, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. My client’s letter of denial, though politely phrased, continued the mystery:

“Although the Board and the Governor do not disclose the reasoning behind a decision to grant or deny clemency, please know that we did not make the decision lightly. We spent considerable time reviewing and discussing your client’s petition.”

I reached out afterward to a fellow attorney who works for an organization that provides legal representation to many clemency applicants. I wanted to know if she had a feel for what criteria Rauner follows.

“There’s no rhyme or reason,” she told me. “People with one arrest, 20 years ago, no objections, still get denied.”

In a recent Chicago Tribune story, a spokesperson for Rauner noted some of the factors the governor considers: How long it has been since the petitioner completed his or her sentence, why the person needs clemency, whether the person’s record blocks him or her from getting a professional license or job, the nature of the crime, acceptance of responsibility for the crime, and whether the petitioner served in the military or has done community service.

These are all valid considerations and, not surprisingly, Gov. Quinn was guided by similar ones. But the two governors routinely reached different conclusions.

A partial remedy to this problem, for which I urge support, is offered in a bill sponsored by state Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Oak Park, approved in the House and pending in the Senate. House Bill 2373 would make it possible for more ex-offenders with nonviolent, nonsexual felony convictions in their past to apply to have their records sealed from view by many private employers. The seal would have to be approved by a judge, and only after law enforcement officials have voiced any objections. Even then, the records still could be viewed by law enforcement agencies and employers in sensitive fields, such as schools.

When a judge denies a petition to seal, you at least get an explanation. When a governor denies a clemency petition, as this governor almost always does, you never know if you were 20 inches from the goal line or 20 yards.

If we believe as a society in the principle of redemption, there is no fairness in this.

Ina R. Silvergleid is an attorney and owner of A Bridge Forward LLC. She specializes in helping people with a criminal background eliminate barriers to employment, professional licensing and housing.  

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