“It’s like giving people a second lease on life.”

Outgoing Governor Kate Brown has granted 48 applications submitted by the 2022 Black Oregonian Pardon Project, We Out Here Magazine has learned.

Two people celebrating the news are “pardon brothers” Larry Turner and Choo Fair, two ambassadors of the Project who themselves received pardons from Oregon Governor Kate Brown in 2021 and 2018.

Turner and Fair’s phones have been ringing off the hook since word got out yesterday. “They were in tears, I was in tears,” Turner told WOHM. “People kept telling me it’s the best Christmas gift they could have got,” Fair told WOHM. “These are people who have struggled for years with having a criminal record.”

The 2022 Black Oregonian Pardon Project advocated for 70 Black Oregonians who were released from prison approximately 10 years ago, have had no incidents since being released, have a non-expungeable felony conviction that is holding them back, and are “living their best life,” Aliza Kaplan, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic told WOHM.

Giving back

Since receiving their pardons, Turner and Fair — along with their colleague and fellow Black pardon receiver Jamar Summerfield — have hustled to raise awareness about the impact a pardon can have on someone’s life and advocate for more pardons for Black Oregonians. Yesterday’s news, they told WOHM, has been a year and a half in the making.

“These are people who have made transformative changes in their lives,” said Turner. “People who have been giving back to the community and will use the pardon to advance their work of uplifting and contributing to the Black community.”

The pardons will remove barriers to employment, housing, bank loans, government employment, running for public office, and owning a gun for self-defense.

“A white power structure” makes just being Black in Oregon hard enough, Turner said. “Having a criminal record is strike two. These pardons — it’s like giving people a second lease on life.”

A 2019 Oregon reform (SB 388) has made pardons more meaningful in the state by pegging them — for the first time — to the actual sealing of records. Brittany Hill, Staff Attorney at the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, which provided pro bono legal representation, told WOHM that, “There is no doubt that this project has changed the course of people’s lives: our clients, their families, and those of us who had the honor of working on it. Being granted a pardon will allow our clients to thrive in ways they only dreamed of and continue to positively impact the greater community.”

“A huge thank you to Governor Kate Brown,” said Fair. “I want to thank Professor Aliza Kaplan, Brittany Hill, Sara Long, Mark Cebert, Carly Cripps, Caroline Shen and the whole Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School.”

Return of the pardon?

Governor Brown has granted more pardons or commutations than all Oregon governors from the past 50 years, combined.

In November, Brown pardoned approximately 45,000 people with marijuana convictions, including over $14,000,000 in associated fines and fees. Yesterday, she forgave traffic fines and fees that she said will create a path for nearly 7,000 Oregonians to seek reinstatement of suspended driver’s licenses. And last week, she commuted 17 death sentences.

Liz Merah, Press Secretary for Governor Kate Brown told WOHM earlier this year that, “Similar to her stance on granting commutations, Governor Brown believes that granting pardons is an extraordinary act that should be reserved for individuals in exceptional circumstances or those who have made incredible changes and are dedicated to making their communities better. She evaluates pardon applications on a case-by-case basis and considers a variety of factors about the applicant’s history and case when making those decisions.”

Previously, in the early 1900s, Oregon governors “annually pardoned substantial percentages of the Oregon prison population,” according to a Lewis & Clark Law Review paper co-authored by Kaplan. At the time, there was an understanding among judges and juries that if they made a mistake, governors would step in with a pardon to make things right. The pardon power provided a “vital correction on the justice system that produced unfair and unnecessarily harsh outcomes,” the paper reads.

Next year, the power will be in the hand of incoming Governor Tina Kotek.

“Best believe we’re going to work with her,” said Fair.

Note: Those who did not receive pardons this year will have opportunities in the future to re-apply.

(Cover photo by Choo Fair, as provided by Choo Fair)