There is no bitterness in Mwangi Vasser’s voice, only hope and wonder.
Now 40 years old, Vasser was convicted in 1998 of selling cocaine in Milwaukee. He says he was caught with 2.7 grams, but he’s also quick to note that the small amount doesn’t make it less illegal.
He served four months in prison and later moved to Georgia, where he owns a small barbershop. He has a doctorate in theology and a dream of becoming a military chaplain. And now that Gov. Tony Evers has issued Wisconsin’s first pardons since 2010, Vasser’s felony conviction will no longer prevent him from pursuing that dream.
It’s “overwhelming,” Vasser told me over the phone on his way back to Georgia from Evers’ office, where he and three other convicted felons were granted pardons earlier this month. It’s “an opportunity to almost recreate yourself.”
It’s an opportunity that wasn’t available to Vasser or others like him during former Gov. Scott Walker’s two terms in office. It’s an opportunity that Evers is right to make available to at least some, if not many of the more than 200 people who have applied since he reinstated the board that considers these requests. Vasser's story is emblematic of a system that too often punishes people for years after their sentences end and cheats them of opportunities to become productive citizens.
Wisconsin’s constitution allows a governor to grant a reprieve, commutation or pardon for all crimes except treason. A pardon doesn’t erase a criminal record or shield it from public view. What it does do is restore the rights that are lost when a person is convicted of a felony — like the right to vote, the right to own a gun and the right to hold public office.
When Walker took office, he did not appoint anyone to the state’s pardon advisory board, then suspended its activity indefinitely. He wasn’t the only governor to refrain from issuing pardons, nor was that decision confined to one political party. His decision did, however, follow a combined total of 562 pardons issued by his predecessors in Wisconsin, Republican Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum, and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
“For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes,” wrote Alan Greenblatt for Governing in 2015. He was questioning, at the time, whether pardons might start becoming more politically popular.
That Walker’s decision was not politically unique did not make it any easier to accept for Vasser, Eric Pizer, Kevin Sorenson or Steven Nichols. It did not make it easier to accept for those of us who believe in the power of second chances, who believe that not every mistake should chart a course chiseled in stone for the rest of one’s life. Sorenson, 36, who was convicted of selling ecstasy at a party when he was 17, has said a pardon will allow him to volunteer for military deployment. Nichols, 62, who was convicted of felony burglary when he was 21, plans to hunt in Canada.
And Pizer, 38, will be able to pursue his dream of being a police officer, 15 years after a punch thrown during a bar fight days after returning from deployment in Iraq resulted in a broken nose and a felony conviction. His story drew national attention when the New York Times reported on a restorative justice meeting during which the man Pizer punched forgave him.
Vasser, who grew up in Milwaukee, said he “hit the ground running” in 2016 in his efforts to obtain a pardon — but was met again and again with word that the process had been suspended in Wisconsin. He asked for help everywhere from community leaders in Milwaukee to the White House, but ultimately the decision rested with the governor.
“The only thing I knew to do was to pray, to give it to God,” he told me.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t discouraged by the wall he’d come up against.
“I paid my debt to society a long time ago. I was very discouraged to know that just walking in the greatness that God has given me” was not possible, Vasser said “What really was more discouraging was when I read the background of Gov. Scott Walker, seeing that his father was a pastor — how godly of a man that he was. To see that he did not have in his heart that level of forgiveness, and being a Christian, the word of God teaches us to forgive. And the word of God tells us we are created in his image and his likeness. If God is a forgiving God — how can we not find forgiveness?”
Less than six months after taking office, Evers reinstated the pardon board — opening a door for Vasser and others like him.
“A pardon can profoundly impact a person’s life by offering them an official grant of forgiveness,” Evers said in a statement announcing the first four pardons of his administration. “Mr. Nichols, Mr. Pizer, Mr. Sorenson, and Rev. Vasser have paid their debt to society, made amends, and contributed to their communities. I believe they deserve a second chance."
From just a brief conversation with Vasser, it was clear to me how much love and compassion he has to share with the world, and how much anyone in search of spiritual guidance would benefit from his.
He’s been sharing that love, compassion and guidance already. He visits homeless shelters and offers whatever he can provide to meet a need — clothing, food, a haircut, a conversation. He works with young adults returning to the community after prison sentences or military service — despite being rejected for federal grant funding for the program because of his own criminal conviction.
I asked him what he wants others to take away from his story, and he offered this: “There is purpose in your pressing” for justice.
There is “a promise connected to your praise.”
“But in order to obtain either, you have to go through the process,” he said.
Vasser is looking forward to more stability — for himself and for those he’s trying to help. He’ll have more employment opportunities, more financial stability, more housing opportunities, more resources to share with others.
“By the grace of God, those pieces of the puzzles can be placed in the proper perspective,” he said.
By the grace of God, by the consideration of the state’s pardon board and by the willingness of a governor to forgive.
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