INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb kicked off his first term by issuing seven pardons to convicted offenders in 2017.
That was double the number his predecessor Mike Pence pardoned in four years.
But since then, the Republican has quietly issued none.
Part of the reason behind the low numbers is a lack of hearings during the initial coronavirus pandemic in 2020. But there are also very few pardon applications coming in.
“Quite frankly, I knew the numbers were way down, but even I was shocked by just how low they were,” Indiana Parole Board Vice Chairman Charles Miller said. “Speaking personally, pardons are the best part of my job, as you get to the good things people accomplish after what is usually just an unfortunate mistake.”
He said when he started in 2013, the board used to get a call nearly every day about the pardon process. Now the board gets one or two a month.
To be eligible for a pardon, five years must have passed since the completion of a person's sentence. That includes parole and probation. And it must be a state conviction from Indiana – not a federal prosecution.
An applicant will have a hearing before the Indiana Parole Board, which will then issue a recommendation to the governor either for or against a pardon. But the governor has total discretion over what is essentially executive forgiveness. It is often sought to allow a former offender to move past the restrictions a felony conviction holds – such as being unable to get certain jobs or certifications, as well as obtain a firearm carry permit.
Pence gave three in four years, while Holcomb is holding at seven with more than three years to go. In comparison then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who claimed to have the lowest pardon percentage of any governor, issued 62 pardons in eight years – about eight a year.
“There haven't been that many come before me,” Holcomb said Thursday. “We have a process where we review anything that is recommended for review. I look at it. And I ask a lot of questions. I want to see how someone who has been incarcerated has devoted their time while inside the gate ... how they've changed their life, what they've given back to society.
“So, it's a bigger picture than just serving time.”
Miller said Indiana's expansive expungement law – first passed in 2013 and refined since – has meant fewer people seeking pardons. The expungement process is both simpler and more private.
The 2017 pardons were largely leftover from the Pence administration. For example, Holcomb pardoned Keith Cooper – the first Indiana pardon based on innocence.
Then in 2018, Holcomb rejected three pardons. One was Kevin Martin, who was convicted of two burglaries in Allen County in the 1980s. During one, he said two friends broke into a laundromat while he drove the car. In a second, he kicked in the door of a private residence but the person was home, and he was eventually caught. He was sentenced to five years in one case and eight years in the second.
“I know pardons are not granted that often, but I figured I might try anyway,” Martin wrote in a letter. “One of the main reasons I want this pardon is I want to get my gun rights back.”
He said he never thought of his crimes or his victims back then – “just about everybody I ran around with went to prison. ... Today I'm not the same person I was back then.”
He also included a letter from a supervisor who called him reliable and a model employee.
In 2019, there were no pardon hearings. Miller said two people applied but later withdrew the petitions after learning of the expungement law. There were also no hearings in 2020 due to the coronavirus.
But the board has had two hearings this year, and a few more applications are under investigation.
One of the pending cases is James Klimkofski, who was convicted of misdemeanor domestic battery in 2000 in Allen County. His application said he slapped his wife during an argument.
“I have never done that before or since that day,” he said. “We are happily married.”
The victim said “it was a huge misunderstanding. We have been together for over 45 years with no other issues.”
He also sought a pardon for intent to commit felony robbery in 1976. But Klimkofski said he never committed a felony, blaming another man who is now dead in his application. The Parole Board couldn't find any documentation on such a conviction.
He also wanted the pardon to restore his gun rights.
Holcomb said he doesn't have any specific rules he follows – like refusing to grant pardons in violent cases or those involving guns. It is more about what a person has done since being convicted.
“'Did I learn from my mistakes? Do I own my mistake and what have I done to make up for it?'” the governor said, adding that simply remaining crime-free is “a much lower bar than I approach it as.”