Editorial: Two lessons from a pardon denied
We were neither surprised nor disappointed by the recent decision by the New Hampshire Executive Council to deny a pardon to an unusual young man last week. But there are nonetheless important lessons to be learned from the case of Thomas Schoolcraft, both for young offenders and for the elected officials and state employees overseeing the corrections system.
Schoolcraft is the type of turnaround story that you mostly hear about in the movies. He dropped out of school in ninth grade and, by 19, had pleaded guilty to committing nine burglaries – including some in which he invaded people’s homes at night when they were inside sleeping. He served nine months in jail but used the opportunity to set himself on a better path. He got his high school equivalency degree, followed by a bachelor’s degree from Keene State College in criminal justice. At college he met the superintendent of the Cheshire County jail who offered him an internship and then a job as a corrections officer. After two years, he left to continue his education: He’s now a student at Boston University, working toward a master’s degree in criminology.
Nonetheless, Schoolcraft argued, without a pardon his ability to pursue a future career in law enforcement will be limited. Having a felony record, for instance, precludes someone from being hired by the state Department of Corrections as a prison guard or a probation or parole officer.
Unlike in some states, pardons are rare in New Hampshire. That’s as it should be. For the governor or Executive Council to step in and overrule the decision of a judge or jury is a serious matter indeed. Granting a pardon to a convicted felon – even one as compelling as Schoolcraft – simply to help him pursue a specific line of work doesn’t necessarily meet the bar, especially when his crimes were committed less than a decade ago. There’s no argument that a judge erred in sentencing Schoolcraft in this case; indeed, he pleaded guilty to his crimes.
One rare pardon, granted years ago, seemed more justified. In the case of June Briand, convicted of murdering her husband in 1987, supporters convincingly argued not only that she had turned her life around after a long stretch in prison but also that there were extenuating circumstances at the time of her conviction. A battered wife, she had killed to save her own life. In 1997, the governor and Executive Council granted her a conditional pardon.
What can we learn from the Schoolcraft case?
The first lesson, for youthful offenders, is obvious: Actions have consequences. What you do as a young person can and often will follow you throughout life. Always true, this is perhaps a bigger challenge in the internet age where records and news accounts are easily accessible by the public and potential employers.
The second lesson, for state and county officials – particularly those with budgetary control over the Department of Corrections and county jails – is this: Rehabilitation is clearly possible. Recidivism isn’t a given. Prison must be more than just a warehouse. Stories like that of Thomas Schoolcraft shouldn’t amaze us. With a more sustained focus on programs to help inmates seek a better path, the state can keep them from returning over and over again to their bad habits and costly incarceration.
Schoolcraft didn’t get his pardon, but he can nonetheless be a role model to others who have stumbled on their path to adulthood.