Khalil A. Cumberbatch, Former Client and Policy Associate at the Legal Action Center at The Fortune Society

Previously Pardoned, He Advocates Expanded Use Of Pardons For Others

Friday, August 7, 2015

“Mr. Cumberbatch, as you know, you have applied for a pardon to the Governor’s Office — and I am pleased to inform you that you have been chosen as a recipient.”

It was Dec. 31, 2014.

Everything after that was white noise.

I remember the first thing I did was look out the window; everything looked different – the grass, the street, even the sky.

I realize now that those things looked different because, for the first time in over a decade, I saw them through the eyes of a man who was free of the criminal justice system.

In the coming hours — after a bevy of phone calls and e-mails — it became real to me that my being pardoned by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo meant that I was free of the collateral consequences from my 2003 felony conviction.

It’s an indescribable feeling. It meant a new life — a rebirth. But, as wondrous as this story was for me, so many others aren’t as fortunate; countless men, women, and children with Federal convictions have yet to experience it, to be given the chance to start a new chapter in their lives. And that’s a tragedy because, although President Obama has issued close to 90 commutations, his record on pardons pales in comparison to his predecessors.

Different Kinds Of Clemency: Commutations Are Not Pardons

Commutations, while a powerful form of clemency, are different from pardons. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) states: “A commutation reduces a Federal prisoner’s sentence, but does not restore any other rights (for example, the right to vote or own guns).” Plainly, a commutation does not remove the consequences associated with a criminal conviction.

This was underscored by Jason Hernandez, one of eight people who received a commutation from President Obama on Dec. 19, 2013, when he discussed the barriers to employment that his conviction presented despite his having received clemency from the President of the United States.

Pardons, the kind of clemency that I received, do not completely remove a conviction from a person’s record, but they do remove the consequences that are associated with a criminal conviction. In my case, a pardon removed the immigration consequences that my felony conviction presented.

Most Apparent In Post-Release

The polar differences between the impact of commutations and pardons are most apparent in reentry. The punishment that a felony conviction can have on a person’s life can be perpetual and multi-layered.

In her groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander says: “Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, [people with felony convictions] are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy.”

She adds: “If shackling [people with criminal convictions] with a lifetime of debt and authorizing discrimination against them in employment, housing, education, and public benefits is not enough to send the message that they are not wanted and not even considered full citizens, then stripping voting rights from those labeled criminals surely gets the point across.”

What Michelle Alexander is referring to are the inevitable systemic hurdles that are in place for people who have felony convictions, particularly as it relates to reentry. These hurdles show up in almost every aspect of life — housing, employment, education, familial relations, economic mobility, and so on, severely limiting a person’s successful reintegration into society lending to a national recidivism rate of almost 70%.

Commutations of sentences don’t affect these barriers in the slightest.

The issuance of pardons, on the other hand, is not only an acknowledgement of the harsh and overly punitive sentencing laws mentioned by the President himself, but it also removes the inevitable barriers that come with reentry. Giving someone a “second chance” via a pardon not only reduces their prison sentence, it also provides them with the necessary resources to capitalize on the opportunity they are given.

An Opportunity To Go Deeper

Not only is there a need for systemic change in the way that we as a country deal with people who commit crimes, we also need to move past the notion that it is only non-violent offenses that are at the heart of the matter.

The reality is that people with “low-level, non-violent offenses” are on the outskirts of the criminal justice system. To actualize the systemic change needed to euthanize the animal known as mass incarceration, there needs to be an expanded notion of who is “worthy” of the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Those opportunities need to be provided to people with all types of offenses regardless of their immigration status, sexual orientation, and mental health status.

In the U.S., there are approximately 650,000 people released from incarceration annually, the overwhelming majority of whom do not fall into the category of “low-level non-violent drug offenses.” Limiting the list of offenses eligible for second chances is not reflective of our American values and it does not make our communities safer; in fact, it does just the opposite.

In my case, I was given those opportunities, despite the fact that I was convicted of a violent felony offense. Those opportunities led to my three college degrees, a budding entrepreneurship, social service, community engagement, and a career as an advocate, all while being a husband and father of two young children. It is because of those results, stemming from those opportunities, that I was ultimately justified in receiving my pardon.

I still remember that day less than a year ago and the feelings I had. I still remember that day because it now fuels my passion to make my outcome the rule and not the exception for others.

Khalil A. Cumberbatch is the Policy Associate at the Legal Action Center and is the 2015 Former Client Special Recognition recipient at Fortune’s Annual Fall Benefit. To learn more about Khalil, his passion, and his work, visit his Web site





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