Oregon Governor Kate Brown has granted more pardons and commutations than any governor in recent state history. Aliza Kaplan is a law professor at Lewis & Clark and directs the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic. For the last six years Kaplan and her students been working to get applications to Brown. The former inmates granted clemency were guilty, she says, but they are extraordinary individuals and have demonstrated that they can be contributing members of the community. For those who were already out of prison but were denied housing or jobs based on their convictions, a pardon clears their way forward. We talk with Kaplan and with two men granted clemency by the governor, Larry Turner and Tacuma Jackson.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Each legislative session, the Governor of Oregon has to tell lawmakers how she or he has handled petitions for clemency of various kinds. Governor Kate Brown sent her letter to lawmakers at the end of June. It was a lengthy report because she has been busy. Since March of 2020, she has granted 33 pardons and 32 commutations. That is in addition to nearly 1,000 other people who were let out of prison early because of Covid. We’re going to hear now from two Oregonians who received clemency from the Governor and another Oregonian who is behind many of these petitions. Aliza Kaplan is a law professor at Lewis and Clark where she is the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic. Larry Turner was released from prison in 1997. He received a pardon from the Governor just last month. Tacuma Jackson served 21 years in prison before receiving a commutation and being released this past January. It’s good to have all three of you on Think Out Loud.
Aliza Kaplan: Thank you.
Tacuma Jackson and Larry Turner: Good to be here.
Miller: Aliza Kaplan, first, we’re going to be talking about a few different things that all fall under the umbrella of the Governor’s executive powers. But what’s the difference between a pardon and a commutation?
Kaplan: The Governor has, in every state, and the President, has this enormous... what we call a pardon power. Using that power, they can grant pardons, which are basically saying, you are forgiven for any crime that you committed in the past. Here in Oregon, because of a law we passed back in 2019, it actually then takes that past conviction that you’ve already served time and done everything that’s been asked of you, and it comes right off your record. So it actually removes it from your record. Commutations are a form of clemency when the Governor changes the sentence and it’s most usually used in the context of releasing someone early from their sentence out of prison.
Miller: When you say the pardon removes it from your record, does that mean that if you served time for a felony, were released, were pardoned by the Governor, and then you’re applying for a job and there’s a box saying, have you ever been convicted of a felony, you can not check that box and you’re telling the truth?
Kaplan: Yeah. In fact, even before we passed the law in 2019 that actually removed it from people’s records, you could do that. Under clemency, when you are pardoned, you officially are forgiven as if it didn’t happen. We had a law to match that which we passed in 2019 that says it actually comes off your record, too. Surprisingly that was not already in place and isn’t in place in most states.
Miller: How common have commutations and pardons been throughout Oregon’s history? How much have Governors exercised this power that’s always been available to them?
Kaplan: Oregon, like most states, historically granted tons of pardons. I actually looked at the history years ago when I wrote a lot of articles on the topic. What you see is historically, when we were more focused on rehabilitation, we were more focused on... let me say it this way, we were less focused on retribution and punishment, and we were more focused on people doing what they needed to do if they committed a crime and then getting back to their lives. So historically, every state granted tons and tons of commutations and pardons. Then that all changed like so much of our criminal justice system in the eighties and nineties where we started creating one size fits all. We went to a pure ‘tough on crime, pure punishment’ philosophy. As we led up to that time, Governors granted less and less and it became a huge political issue to the point where some governors were granting almost none. Then, that kind of carried through through the eighties and nineties, and even pretty recently. It’s kind of making a comeback is what I like to say. We’re seeing that as we rethink a lot of the tough on crime philosophy, and laws of the eighties and nineties, we are questioning those policies and making changes, and asking what role rehabilitation and remorse should play, and when is too much punishment. We’re also acknowledging that people can change and we show mercy, and we’re reuniting families and communities. All of this is behind the governor’s use of clemency, any governor’s use of clemency, to correct those injustices.
Miller: Tacuma Jackson, as I mentioned, you were released from prison in January after getting a commutation from the Governor. You had been sentenced to 396 months of incarceration, months being the way the criminal justice system counts time. That’s 33 years behind bars. How old were you when you arrived?
Jackson: I actually had just turned 26, days before.
Miller: So you were sentenced to more time behind bars than you had already been on the planet. What do you most remember from those early days?
Jackson: What before prison or…?
Miller: No, when you arrived in prison.
Jackson: Well, I don’t know. I remember the first year, or two, trying to hold on to everything that I figured that I was going to lose out on all this time. I guess this false sense of that, I can try to hold on to everything and everybody, as long as I just keep calling and constantly touching bases with them. But I realized that time wasn’t only going to affect me, it was gonna affect him. So the psychological part of that, embracing that, or trying to come to terms that, was going to be a painful loss, eventual loss. And of course there will be those very few that stick around. But that was one of the things that kind of consumed most of my time, just dealing with those thoughts.
Miller: What family or relationships were you trying to hold onto in those early years?
Jackson: I had a girlfriend, of course. I was one of the relatives, one of the family members that tried my hardest to run around and check on every family member, just show a face, and these routines and everything. I felt like I was responsible to maintain these routines and that these routines are being uprooted from the family here that lives in the Portland Metro area that I checked on frequently. I felt like, me disrupting that would really have a collateral effect on them. So it was mostly family, you know?
Miller: And you had kids too?
Jackson: Yes. Yes. I had actually had my child that hadn’t been born yet, also.
Miller: What was it like to try to maintain or forge those relationships?
Jackson: You’re talking about my personal relationships with my kid’s mother?
Jackson: While incarcerated?
Miller: Exactly. With your kids, while incarcerated.
Jackson: The first few years, there were a lot of emotions there, back and forth when, I was able to get a hold of them. I just wanted to touch bases with them. But what can you say to someone that has come to the realization that you’re getting ready to do 33 years in prison. I think a lot of the words, a lot of things that we’re trying to say to bring some type of comfort... Of course I was young. So there was some frustrations. There may be a few arguments in between because we’re both trying to figure out what’s going on, what both of our realities were. Trying to maintain this relationship was strenuous because, they were young. They were young mothers and here I am a young father, being in prison. There’s nothing I can do financially, emotionally, mentally, physically, whatever. It was a lot for everybody to handle. Our relationship probably... it faded away for years. There were times where three or four years may have passed by and I hadn’t reached out. I tried to reach out, to get in contact with any one of the. But these are some of the realities I had to face, doing the time.
Miller: Over the course of more than two decades, you spent big chunks of time at Snake River in Ontario and at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. How did the opportunities you had in those two different prisons for education, for training, for broadly what we call rehabilitation... how different were they, at those two different prisons?
Jackson: Well, in Snake River… I guess terms [of] education, learning tools, trade or vocational training, etcetera,. Snake River had a lot of that. But they were very selective. They did put you in different categories and itemized you as how old are you, when are you going home, do you qualify for this? Let’s put you in a particular category, or you’re a little too old. Even though you’re 26 years old, you got this much time, [so[ this particular program, it’s not gonna work for you. We’re just going to put you over here in the kitchen, or down here, over here. So don’t worry about the Pell Grant applying to you. We’re gonna apply to this guy here. Those particular educations outside of the GED weren’t available to people like me that came in at 26 years old, with that type of time, because they categorize and itemize everybody. The things that I can learn, I can learn in my home, checking out particular books, reference from people that can steer me towards books that would genuinely instill some type of knowledge about whatever the subject matter that I’m covering at the time. But when I got to OSP, everything moved 1,000 times faster and it was very pro social. I know guys in there that we’re getting Master’s Degrees, Bachelor’s and and I was like, wait a minute, what? It was different. So it was a lot of dead time in Snake River, but I tried to make the best of it by educating myself in different ways. What was available to me because of what was not being available to me or extended to me because of the time that I was doing.
Miller: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your time in prison?
Jackson: Man...It would be honest with you if I would say what I’m proud of most accomplishing I think is the transformation of self, because my thinking... it was it was not really normal thinking. It was just that I was self centered. I was selfish in a lot of ways. I think this transformation is something that I yearned for, but I never thought that it would exist. But it was the people that I started surrounding myself with over years, and started watching how they move and how they programmed. Which I knew was something that I wanted to apply to my own personal program. I think the thing I’m most proud about is the transformation of self and those who helped me get on the path and change the trajectory where my path was leading.
Miller: Did you know anybody who’s sentence was commuted?
Jackson: Well, I’m bad with names, but if it was something most recent, I would say there were a couple of the people I know they were getting commuted because of Covid situation. Like I said, I’m not very familiar with names. I kinda just seen a few guys... because of the situation. But it was something I never really... This is something to remember because I was like I’m still in my own head in several ways when it comes to being released because I had embraced the time that I had…
Miller: In other words, you thought wasn’t going to apply to you at a certain point. 33 years was going to be 33 years.
Jackson: Pretty much.
Miller: Aliza Kaplan, what makes somebody… Among other things, you help people who are behind bars with their petitions, and if if they meet the criteria that you have set up with your team, you can send these along to the governor. What do you look for?
Kaplan: The Criminal Justice Reform Clinic has what we call a Clemency Project. One of the projects that we work on, it’s been around for a little less than six years and we’ve sort of been trying stuff out over this time to see what might work. We really look at people who... TJ talked about his transformation, and the truth is, there’s tons and tons of people incarcerated in Oregon’s prisons and in all prisons that have been working on themselves and that transformation. We work on people who have committed serious crimes, who have spent a ton of time in prison, and we can really see by getting to know them in the process and looking at all their programming and all their education and jobs. We look at all of that to see who are they now compared to who were they when they committed their crime. That’s definitely a big factor. We look at how much time they have served. We’ve looked at all the things that are involved in. We looked at how they feel about the crime they committed, are they remorseful? What does that all mean to them? We work for free on our cases, so we’re trying to find folks that are indigent, and it’s a really intense process to do clemency the way we do it. We really want to get to know our clients deeply. And they rarely let us down. I mean, the problem for us is keeping up with the numbers of people who we’d like to take on because there’s so many people who have done their time well, who have done everything that’s asked of them, who have transformed, who are remorseful, who really understand why they committed the crime and have a plan for the future, especially so many folks want to help others. Like both these men you have on your show today are just extraordinary. Our project has been going so successfully that I’m actually working on a bigger project to look at this more nationwide and in other states where we can sort of use the Oregon blueprint and trying to find some… we’re working with some corporate sponsors and folks to see how can we spread this out? Because it’s been such an amazing project and we’ve just met so many incredible folks in prison.
Miller: Larry Turner. I want to turn to you. Unlike Tacuma Jackson who was commuted, and then let out of prison this past January after 21 years, you were released from prison about 25 years ago. But it was just last month that you got the pardon, meaning that your criminal record was erased. How did your criminal record affect your life post prison for the last 2.5 decades?
Larry Turner: First of all I want to thank my wife and Professor Kaplan and Christian Eichelberger, my attorney, and last but not least Governor Kate Brown for granting the pardon.
It has affected me psychologically. It affected me emotionally. It has affected me sometimes physically and spiritually as well. Wanting to do better and wanting to improve your life and then having a barrier that’s roadblocking you, that you think is seemingly insurmountable, can cause a lot of issues for you economically, as far as career wise. If I want to go back to school, there are certain things that I couldn’t become... a doctor or a lawyer... because this criminal record was hanging over my head. So it affected me a lot of ways, but it just fueled me more to want to prove to myself that I wasn’t the person that I was when I committed those crimes.
Miller: What was it like to be hampered by that criminal record even after you’ve been out of prison for 20 years and had been working to help other people in various ways? For example, not follow in those footsteps to help so many people, but two decades on?
Turner: Well, if you know the history of Oregon, it started to all make sense. In 1859 when Oregon was ratified as a state, white settlers were encouraged to come here and were given 600 acres of land for every white settler that would come to Oregon. Blacks were discouraged to come to Oregon, and if you came to Oregon, resided more than six months, you will be given 20 lashes in the middle of the town square. So, the white oppressive system that caused racism to exist and to permeate here in Oregon put me in a position where I began to believe that this is what Oregonians and with the state of Oregon wanted for me... was to not get rid of this criminal record and to have this criminal record. So I could be branded because we know the history of Oregon was built on Oregon being a white haven for white people. So, as a matter of fact, you come to Oregon, you’ve committed a crime, this is what you’re gonna get and this is what you got coming. It made a lot of sense to me. It also even made more sense to me that, if I was going to be a part of the change, that I would have to do things way outside the box. So one of the things that I did was I started a program called Fresh Out Community Based Re-entry Program, which helps formerly incarcerated African American individuals not return to jail and prison. I couldn’t do that myself because, like I mentioned, the oppressive systems that whites control here in Oregon, In order to do that, I had to become acquainted with some white people who wanted to see that change happen as well. People like Professor Kaplan and Tony Burnell, and lots of people that supported me in my journey... Mike Smith, the District Attorney, Judge Evans, Judge Walker, Judge Albright... people that saw that I really was making a change in my life and that they want to support that change. I just kept telling me to do what I was doing and that things would eventually happen for me. I was resigned to the fact that I was just going to have to figure out a way to maneuver around a crime that I couldn’t get off my record and that it hadn’t stopped me from doing a lot of the things that I wanted to do. Maybe there’s just things that I couldn’t do, but I could continue to do and improve and help other people improve as well.
Miller: Aliza Kaplan, I want to run a critique by you that you may have seen. Kevin Mannix, a former Republican state lawmaker who helped create Measure 11, Oregon’s Mandatory Minimums Law, has been critical of the increase in commutations we’re talking about. He said in a statement, ‘This massive release of convicted felons is a serious assault on the integrity of our criminal justice system. Legislators and governors, as well as the voters, worked for years to develop a sentencing structure which showed respect for crime victims and which included truth in sentencing,’ he added, ‘While the system contemplates occasional acts of clemency, this Governor has thrown truth in sentencing out of the system.’ What is your response to that statement?
Kaplan: Well, first, I’ll just start by saying we have about 12,000 plus people currently in prison and what we learned in the beginning of the segment, that the Governor has granted 32 conditional commutations. So, let’s keep everything a little bit in perspective. But even if she granted 1,000 or 2,000 more, it would still not put a dent in our prison population. That is mostly because of Measure 11 and other tough on crime laws that we created, and I think that we can see pretty clearly from the last two or three legislative sessions, that there is a huge interest in the state to work towards more comprehensive criminal justice reform. While that is happening, and some has happened already and more will happen, to address issues of racial discrepancies, overcrowded prisons, juvenile brain science, our aging prison population, etcetera. As we work on creating some of that legislation… clemency is amazing, and it’s being used exactly how clemency should be used. And this is true, if you look at the history of clemency, it’s used not as a replacement for criminal justice reform, but to address systematic failures in the absence of legislative change.
Miller: Aliza Kaplan, Larry Turner and Tacuma Jackson, the music means we’re out of time. Thanks very much for joining us.
Kaplan/Turner/Jackson, in unison: Thank you!
Miller: That’s Aliza Kaplan, Larry Turner and Tacuma Jackson. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.
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