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Clemency was a political third rail for decades. Healey and other governors are starting to embrace it.

Terrance Williams (center), with his wife, Pamela, was congratulated after appearing at a June news conference at which Governor Maura Healey announced she was recommending pardons for Williams and six others.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Joanne Booth was 18 in 1979 when, while out at a club in Cambridge, she saw her brother getting arrested, pulled her shoe off, and threw it at the officer. She was arrested when she literally hopped into the Police Department to check on her sibling, she said.

On her attorney’s advice, she pleaded guilty to assault and battery with a dangerous weapon — which, she notes, was ”a little white sneaker.” She completed her probation and community service, and, she thought, paid her debt for her “punky” teenage behavior.

Until January 2021, that is, when she was abruptly fired from the Boys & Girls Club, where she’d worked as a pre-K teacher, because the 42-year-old conviction, which she twice had sealed, reemerged on a background check the club was mandated to run after receiving a grant.

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“It was absolutely demoralizing,” said Booth, 63. So in the fall of 2022 she turned to what has been, at best, a Hail Mary option in Massachusetts for decades: She sought a gubernatorial pardon.

But suddenly it doesn’t seem such a long shot. Booth is among the 13 people to whom Governor Maura Healey granted pardons during her first year in office, reviving the state’s little-used clemency power in ways unseen for decades so early in a governor’s term. She also released new guidelines that vastly expand who can qualify for clemency.

The series of moves is giving hope to attorneys, criminal justice advocates, and those incarcerated that Healey, a former state attorney general, could usher in a sea change for an executive power long considered politically fraught. She also appears to be positioning Massachusetts among a growing number of states where chief executives are embracing pardons and commutations — in some cases, at historic levels — amid a wider movement on rethinking criminal punishment.

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“My north star is going to be, what does it mean in terms of justice and fairness?” Healey told the Globe about granting pardons, which forgive a criminal offense, and commutations, which can shorten a prison sentence. She has yet to issue the latter. “I’m just taking it from where I am and what I believe in and what I believe as governor I should do . . . in terms of making the system more fair and more just. We’ll be a better Commonwealth for it.”

While inconsistent across the country, the use of clemency has soared in some red and blue states alike. Mike Parson, Missouri’s Republican governor and a former sheriff, has pardoned more than 600 people in just three years. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has granted more than 1,100 for drug, theft, and other offenses — a record in his state. Before leaving office in January, Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, a Democrat, granted 2,500, more than doubling the number issued by any of his predecessors. Hundreds were for marijuana-related offenses.

In other states, such as Delaware or South Carolina, officials have typically granted hundreds of pardons each year. They embody pockets of the country where governors, or independent boards, have regularly issued pardons without major scandals, said Margaret Love, executive director of Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides research on criminal justice issues.

Still, clemency remains relatively spotty. The Restoration of Rights Project, which Love’s nonprofit runs, counts 16 states where pardons are granted frequently or regularly. In nearly as many, they’re infrequent, and in 13 others — Massachusetts still included — they’re considered rare.

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The shift now in Massachusetts and elsewhere reflects what Love called a wider “renaissance” on criminal justice: State legislatures are expanding voting rights for people with felony convictions or reshaping professional licensing requirements, including by limiting when someone’s criminal record can be considered in an application.

With clemency, “governors are appreciating they have a responsibility to use their constitutional power to, you can say, do justice,” Love said, “to perform the kind of function that the law doesn’t allow.”

In Missouri, the 600-plus pardons Parson has granted are the most issued by a governor since the 1940s, according to the Associated Press. The conservative Republican inherited thousands of applications upon taking office in 2018 and has granted clemency for offenses ranging from burglary to theft to driving while intoxicated.

He is currently weighing at least one controversial petition, from Eric DeValkenaere, a former white Kansas City detective who shot and killed a Black man in 2019. But to date, Parson has been “fairly even-handed and not overtly partisan” in choosing to whom he grants forgiveness, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri Columbia.

“There’s always the potential to be a political landmine,” Squire said. “For Parson, his background in law enforcement has also given him some level of comfort in realizing that sometimes people make stupid decisions . . . and if they stay out of trouble for a number of years, they should probably be given a chance to clear their record.”

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Governor Maura Healey discussed her approach to clemency during an interview at the State House earlier this month.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The number Healey has pardoned pales compared to Missouri and elsewhere. But with the low bar her Massachusetts predecessors have set, she’s well ahead of the curve.

The 13 pardons Healey has granted represent the most in a governor’s first year since 1983, when Michael Dukakis recommended 49 pardons and four commutations. Her actions included pardoning a Boston Water and Sewer Commission employee for a decades-old juvenile assault conviction and a man convicted of robbing a bank in 2015 who faced risk of deportation.

She has nearly matched the 15 pardons former governor Charlie Baker had approved by the Governor’s Council during his two terms, in addition to three commutations for men serving life sentences for murder. Former governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, recommended just four pardons and one commutation over eight years in office. Mitt Romney boasted of not granting any during his only term in office.

Dukakis left office having granted more than 800 pardons and dozens of commutations, but his tenure also includes the seed of the “Willie Horton effect” — the ever-looming shadow created in 1987 when Horton, a convicted murderer, raped a woman while on a weekend furlough.

Horton was later the subject of an infamous political ad that helped sink Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid. The incident also transformed executive acts of forgiveness into a political third rail that’s snaked through the governor’s office for decades. The entire clemency process became “dysfunctional,” with backlogs of pending applications, said Mallory Hanora, executive director of the advocacy group, Families for Justice as Healing.

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“The elected officials didn’t have the investment [in granting clemency], and the system itself was not functioning properly,” she said. “People couldn’t count on this to be a meaningful process.”

Healey has signaled she wants to shift course. Beyond her early pursuit of pardons, she vowed to “move to pardon” those convicted of simple marijuana possession, though she has yet to take action even as President Biden and other governors have done so as more states legalize cannabis.

Her guidelines also could speed what’s often been a drawn-out process, requiring the state’s Advisory Board of Pardons to either deny a petition or schedule a hearing within 10 weeks of getting the application. If it does set a hearing, the board then must make a recommendation to Healey within six months of receiving the petition. With a concrete timeline — Baker’s guidelines, for example, mandated when the governor has to act on a recommendation but not when the board must move on a petition — the state could avoid the backlog of applications that has dogged it in the past, advocates say.

Still, the number of clemency petitions actually being submitted remains low. As of mid-December, the state had fielded 49 applications this year after receiving 60 in Baker’s final year. Since Healey released her guidelines in late October, the board has scheduled one hearing, for a commutation.

“We’re at an important crossroads,” said Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI and Reentry project at Greater Boston Legal Services and the co-chair of a Massachusetts Bar Association task force that recommended a clemency overhaul in 2021. Part of measuring Healey, she said, will include “whether or not people get commutations, as well as the pardons.”

Booth — whom Healey pardoned for her 1979 assault conviction, as well as a drunken driving conviction from the early 1980s — said the fact that Healey has acted on her and others’ petitions is itself “amazing.” Booth said the pardon allowed her to return several weeks ago to her job teaching, where she was enthusiastically embraced by coworkers.

“So many hugs,” she said. “It really is like getting your life back.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.