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Governor Baker proposes pardons for four men, clearing their criminal records

The recommendations were sent to the Governor’s Council, which has the ultimate authority to approve the pardons.

Governor Charlie Baker recommended pardons that would clear criminal records for four people convicted between 1971 and 1990.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker proposed pardons Wednesday that would clear the criminal records of four men convicted between 1971 and 1990, a rarity in a state with a longstanding reluctance to grant clemency.

Baker recommended pardons for Kenneth Dunn, convicted of Larceny in 1971; Stephen Polignone, convicted of larceny and altering a motor vehicle license in 1980; Michael Picanso, convicted of trespass, larceny, and wanton destruction of property in 1986; and Steven Joanis, convicted of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon in 1990.

The recommendations, Baker’s first since he took office in 2015, were sent to the Governor’s Council, which has the ultimate authority to approve pardons.

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Dunn, Polignone, and Picanso applied for pardons so that they can meet the qualifications to obtain firearms licenses, according to the governor’s Advisory Board of Pardons, which put forward the recommendations. Joanis requested a pardon in order to pass Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, background checks required to volunteer at his childrens’ community and religious functions.

Polignone also stated in an application for a pardon that he wants to purchase a home in a gated community and worries his conviction might jeopardize the sale, and Picanso stated that he is concerned his conviction could undermine his ability to advance in an aerospace career, which requires security clearance.

The state’s guidelines for clemency, which Baker rewrote in 2020, classify pardons as an “extraordinary remedy” designed to remove the barriers to regular life associated with a criminal record.

“All of these individuals have shown a commitment to their communities and rehabilitation since their convictions,” Baker said. “However, the charges are related to decades-old convictions that continue to have an impact on their lives.”

Massachusetts governors have been notoriously reluctant to grant clemency for crimes, a sensitive topic in state politics since convicted murderer Willie Horton raped a woman while out of prison on a weekend furlough in 1987. The case became a heated and controversial issue in then-Governor Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign, after then-Republican nominee George H.W. Bush sought to portray Dukakis as soft on crime.

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Martin Healy, chief legal counsel at the Massachusetts Bar Association, said there is a “general misconception” among politicians that there is a major risk of political backlash for putting forward recommendations.

Healy noted, however, that Baker is making his recommendations well before the end of his term — such proposals are typically made in December or January, he pointed out — leading him to believe the governor may propose other pardons.

“I think we might see more pardons by this governor and the next governor,” Healy said. “I think the voices for reform are loud and clear.”

Terrence Kennedy, a member of the Governor’s Council, also noted the rarity of pardons in Massachusetts. Although he had not yet reviewed Baker’s recommendations, Kennedy said he was “pleased that they’re doing some,” and hopes to see more in the future.

“People in prison and people looking for pardons don’t have a big constituency,” Kennedy, a defense lawyer by trade, said in an interview. “They don’t have a lot of people advocating for them.”

Former governor Deval Patrick, Baker’s predecessor, issued only four pardons and one commutation over his two terms — although they were the state’s first pardons since 2002.

In January, Baker commuted the sentences of Thomas E. Koonce and William Allen, who were each convicted for murder in 1987 and 1994, respectively — what Baker called a “groundbreaking” act of mercy. But earlier this month, after President Joe Biden announced federal pardons for those convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana, Baker said he is unlikely to follow.

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According to Baker’s office, the pardon recommendations were based on the following:

— Dunn was convicted of larceny from a building in October 1971. He denied any involvement in the break-in but admitted to entering the building. He was sentenced to a year of probation, which was terminated the following September.

— Polignone was convicted of larceny and altering a motor vehicle license in 1980, and served one year of probation. According to his petition, Polignone wrote bad checks from a bank account he knew did not have enough money to cover them and used the fake license to cash the checks.

— Picanso pleaded guilty to larceny, trespass, and wanton destruction of property in August 1986. According to his petition, Picanso’s car got a flat tire, so he and another man broke the window of a parked car at a nearby dealership and stole its spare tire and tire iron. He was sentenced to a year of probation.

— Joanis pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon and one count of armed assault in a dwelling in September 1990. Joanis has stated he meant to intimidate the victim, who Joanis said had “tormented” his then-girlfriend. He was sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for one year of probation, which was terminated without issue in September 1991.

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Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.