Melanie Burrows is sober, educated, law abiding and still paying the price for breaking the law more than two decades ago.
With unpardoned drug felonies on her record, she’s barred from becoming a probation agent or correctional officer — jobs she studied in college and has dreamed about for years.
So last winter, the 50-year-old Sparta resident sought a pardon from Gov. Scott Walker.
It went nowhere.
Walker has issued no pardons since taking office, and he suspended the state’s Pardon Advisory Board in November 2011.
It’s a stark change in policy from his predecessors — Jim Doyle pardoned about 300 people; Tommy Thompson granted 62 .
“This is an important public policy question,” said UW-Madison law professor Donald Downs. “But the state constitution places the power in the lap of the governor, so the issue right now appears to be more political than legal.”
Walker’s office declined to explain its position. Asked about the pardon policy, spokesman Cullen Werwie said “the court system has an adequate appeals process,” and he didn’t respond to follow-up requests.
That gives little comfort to Burrows, who is not denying her guilt and trying to appeal but asking to be forgiven.
“I think I deserve the right to prove my case,” she said. “It is possible for a person to change for the better, to pay their price to society, to pay for their crime, to be remorseful, to take responsibility and to work to become a better and different person.”
Without pardons, some felons can’t regain their right to vote, own a gun, serve on a jury, hold public office or an alcohol or tobacco license lost as part of their conviction.
More than 50 people asked Walker for pardons before he dissolved the state board. His office no longer tallies requests.
Crimes, but also 24 years of sobriety
Burrows was 24 in 1987 when she sold an ounce of marijuana to a police informant. A La Crosse County jury found her guilty, and a judge gave her five years of probation and three months in jail.
Two years later, Burrows forged a prescription for Ritalin. She was convicted of her second felony and placed on probation for two years, plus 30 days in jail.
She enrolled an outpatient treatment, the first step in what she says is 24 years of sobriety. She also started at the public defender’s office to work off her representation at $5 an hour.
Burrows went on to earn paralegal and legal secretary associate degrees from Western Technical College in 1993 and 1995.
She tried for a pardon under then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, but the Pardon Advisory Board ruled it was too soon after her conviction and she didn’t prove employers wanted her.
So Burrows went back to college, this time for her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from Mount Scenario College in Ladysmith, Wis.
She volunteered with domestic abuse programs and a food pantry and is now part of a Monroe County coalition trying to keep the community drug-free.
“She immediately jumped right in and offered her assistance and wanted to do what she could and give back what she could,” said Natalie Carlisle, who works with Burrows on the coalition.
Burrows dreamed of one day working in the proposed Monroe County criminal justice center. She prepared to ask Walker for a pardon, and went to the governer’s website for the application.
“There was one dang line and it said, ‘Governor Walker has suspended applications at this time,’” she said. “I just about fell out of my chair.
“I can understand not considering violent crimes,” she said. “But at least give me the opportunity to apply and be considered.”
The state’s constitution doesn’t require governors grant or even consider pardons — it just gives them the power to do so, Marquette University Law School professor Richard Esenberg said.
Burrows claims Walker is denying her due process.
She’s contacted legislators and President Barak Obama, started an online petition and reached out to state agencies.
Her best hope might be Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee.
In early February, Taylor proposed new legislation that would create an independent council of nine reserve judges to review pardon applications and make recommendations to the governor on every one.
Taylor criticized Walker’s decision to ignore pardon applications as “just plain wrong,” saying there are cases where they are justified.
“Every citizen deserves to know that their application is being reviewed and the facts of their cases and rehabilitation are under scrutiny as well as the impact of their crimes on victims,” she said. “For a governor to ignore a citizen’s petition such as this violates the basic tenant of responsive government. This bill will ensure that citizens are heard and their applications acted on.”
No hearings are set for the bill.
“I’m so hopeful that it will pass and I can apply,” Burrows said.
In the meantime, Burrows said she’ll continue her freelance work helping people with small claims and divorce cases. Her paralegal work, though, is limited because she can’t be a notary without a pardon.
“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “When I went for the degrees I imagined I would have a pardon. Now I don’t know.”