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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.

Legacy Comments8

There's a lesson here for all the prisoners studying in prison schools, participating in prison programs and working in prison industries, hoping to and dreaming about turning their lives around: FORGET IT!! No matter what you accomplish, no matter how hard you work, you will ALWAYS carry the stigma of being a convict. Just go back to your cell, plan your next heist while waiting for your parole/release date.

I think Lincoln's example is instructive here: he pardoned over 80% of the cases brought to his attention, the military ones almost always over the objections of his generals. And brain research indicates that it takes until the mid-20's to reach emotional maturity. I think Schoolcraft deserved a pardon.

What do the people who Schoolcraft broke into their houses have to say? How did he address his victims? If they were repaid for their losses than he should have a second chance if not perhaps more time should go by.

Many people stumble in life, many more stumble and even fall down but don't get caught. If the proverbial truth serum was put in the water container at work, does anyone want to guess how many people would have to turn themselves in. Let’s see - tax evasion (personal and business taxes), multiple DWI's, theft from another, businesses (large and small) that cheat people for profit, smoking pot, the list would go on as the jails filled. This person committed a crime and was sentenced for it. He then turned it around and decided he was on the wrong path, went back to school and got his degree. The point to me is that if a person does everything right (after committing a crime) but the laws will not allow that person to gain decent employment then what goal is out there for those that get caught (think back if you were one that did not get caught). This person should be a "poster child" of the prison system saying that there is hope for a future life...... Granted there could be a set number of years, say 10, that the person must be clean and could then be given a conditional discharge saying the person could get a now excluded job. If they were convicted again then the old sentence could be brought back into it as a repeat offender. In my opinion this person would be a perfect candidate as a prison guard, probation officer or parole officer. He has been there, done that and turned it all around. Proof that people can changed. I’m not defending anyone that committed a crime, just saying if you truly limit their ability to go after gainful employment forever, then don’t be surprised at a higher recidivism rate.

I'll disagree. He's at the beginning of his life. He made poor decisions as a teen, not at all unusual accept perhaps in the severity of his errors. Perhaps more time is needed, but what of second chances? The United States is rapidly becoming a nation where there are no second chances, from the way we use numbers for credit scores to keeping convictions on record forever... it wasn't always this way. That opportunity we celebrated, the US as a place to remake, reform, and move forward? We're losing that. There are consequences for errant behaviour. I accept mine, and I would never seek a pardon because of the harm I caused. Yet to see this standard applied to one so young, to see its absoluteness, well... it ignores a whole lot of things, from the human element to what recidivism numbers tell us. There's a major fail right there, the blame for which falls both upon the individual and upon society for closing so many doors to those who are intent on putting the past behind them. nelle

No second chances? You must have one eye closed. Larry Summers was a major player in the 2007-08 financial debacle, and now he is in the conversation for next chairman of the Fed. If you are 1. well connected, 2. well heeled, and 3. without scruples, you get a lifetime of second, third, fourth, etc. chances. Anthony Weiner, anybody? Or Newt Gingrich?

Not the same sort of second chance, and you know it.

nelle, that was exactly my point (expressed with perhaps too much irony), that there are only second chances for the rich and famous and powerful.

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