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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson arrives for a press conference in his Capitol office on Nov. 6, 2023, in Jefferson City, Mo. Parson has pardoned more than 600 people in the past three years – more than any Missouri Gov. since the 1940s. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb)
DAVID A. LIEB Associated Press
Published: 26 November 2023

Distraught by a romantic breakup, 16-year-old Kenny Batson vented his hurt by stomping out the windshields of cars on a for-sale lot. He landed in juvenile detention, but that was only the beginning of his trouble.

Over the ensuing years, Batson stole cigarettes, booze and cars for drunken joyrides while bouncing in and out of prison and substance abuse treatment programs. At age 20, he beat a man nearly to death, stopping only when friends pulled him away.

Now 50, Batson is a Christian pastor, a reformed man who has been pardoned for his crimes.

The governor who pardoned him knows a bit about transformations.

For a dozen years as a rural sheriff, Mike Parson was the face of justice, the man ultimately responsible for catching and locking up local lawbreakers. Now governor, Parson also has become the face of mercy by pardoning more than 600 people in the past three years, more than any Missouri governor since the 1940s.

“I still believe in law and order. I believe criminals need to be treated as such, and they’ve got accountability,” Parson said in an interview with The Associated Press.

But “it doesn’t mean they’re a criminal all their life,” Parson added. “I think you’ve got to be able to look at it.”

Parson's pardoning pace in Republican-heavy Missouri coincides with a national movement to restore citizens' rights and reputations after they have served criminal sentences. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, recently set a new state record for the number of pardons.

Minnesota also could be in store for more pardons after the Legislature this year revamped the state's clemency process to allow for pardons without unanimous votes by a three-person board composed of the governor, attorney general and chief justice. The governor still must be one of the two votes.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden last year pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession and encouraged governors to do the same.

The movement marks a step back from the tough-on-crime politics of the late 20th century and a return to an earlier American era when pardons and commutations were much more common.

Though the process varies, every state allows some form of clemency. Commutations shorten the length of sentences. Pardons function like official forgiveness for crimes, restoring rights such as the ability to own firearms and clearing hurdles for employment.

For Batson, the pardon helped restore a sense of self-worth by obliterating the felon label. The official document arrived in a manilla envelope more than five years after his wife put together a thick packet of recommendation letters for his clemency application.

“I literally cried and screamed when I got it. It was amazing,” Batson said.

In Missouri, clemency requests are first screened by the Board of Probation and Parole, which makes confidential recommendations to the governor. There is no deadline for the governor to make a decision.

Parson inherited nearly 3,700 clemency applications when he was suddenly elevated from lieutenant governor following the resignation of scandal-plagued GOP Gov. Eric Greitens in June 2018. Some of those cases, including Batson's, dated to the tenure of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who served from 2009-2017.

Parson's staff began systematically tackling the backlog in December 2020, even as more requests poured in. They set a goal of evaluating around 100 cases each month, weighing applicants' work and education history, community involvement, character references and contrition for their crimes. The types of crimes, how young offenders were and how much time had passed also came into play as Parson made his decisions.

So far, Parson has denied about 2,400 clemency requests while granting 613 pardons and 20 commutations. That's the most since Republican Gov. Forrest Donnell granted almost 1,700 pardons from 1941-1945.

In Wisconsin, Evers has granted 1,111 pardons since taking office in 2019, surpassing the record of 943 set by Republican Gov. Julius Heil from 1939-1943. Evers' actions are particularly notable because his predecessor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, had disbanded the pardons board and issued no pardons during his eight years in office.

As a result of Parson's actions, Missouri is now categorized by the Restoration of Rights Project as one of 16 states granting frequent or regular pardons. A predictable schedule, like Parson's monthly announcements, can help dispel impressions that the process is corrupt, said Margaret Love, executive director of the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which runs the project.

“The thing about regular pardoning is the public comes to have confidence in it, and they understand what the governor is doing,” said Love, a former pardon attorney for the U.S. Justice Department.

In Wisconsin, Evers' pardon announcements have been accompanied by a brief summary of each person's crimes and subsequent accomplishments.

Parson has publicized only the names of those granted clemency. But details of each person's criminal offenses and the dates and counties of their convictions are included in clemency documents filed with the secretary of state's office, which the AP obtained through open-records requests.

Of those granted clemency by Parson, 42% had been convicted of drug crimes, 28% of theft and 14% of burglary, according to an AP analysis. The next most common felony convictions were for driving while intoxicated, forgery and passing bad checks. On average, nearly 28 years had passed since their last convictions.

Two notable exceptions were Mark and Patricia McCloskey. The St. Louis couple who gained national attention for waving guns at racial injustice protesters were pardoned by Parson on July 30, 2021, just six weeks after Mark McCloskey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fourth-degree assault and Patricia McCloskey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment.

At least three people were pardoned for crimes committed in Polk County while Parson was sheriff there from 1993 to 2005. They include Pete Underdal, whose frequent drinking and driving landed him in prison, and Dave Galloway, who was caught selling methamphetamine from his home.

Parson knows both men and has since been a customer of Galloway's locksmith business. But Parson said his hometown connections played no role in their pardons.

More important are the testimonials of others, such as the law enforcement officer who raided Galloway's house and years later vouched for his transformed character.

“When you get people in your community that you live in and they start saying things about you, how you changed and such, it does have an impact. It does on me,” Parson said.

Galloway said he applied for clemency in 2010 but heard nothing for years. He was shocked when his request was granted in 2022.

“For Governor Parson to look at me and to recognize that rehabilitation is real and not just stuff that somebody says, based your actions and not on your words, was huge," Galloway said.

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