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Quinn Making Headway On Clemency Backlog

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CHICAGO (AP) -- Gordon "Randy" Steidl left Danville Correctional Center in 2004 after spending more than 17 years in prison, including 12 on death row, for a double murder he didn't commit.

But the fact he was exonerated of the crime doesn't help him much in the real world. Without a pardon from the governor to wipe his record clean, Steidl must mark "yes" on job applications that ask only if he's been convicted of a crime, not whether he actually committed one.

His request for clemency was one of about 2,500 gathering dust on former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's desk when he was ousted from office in January, leaving the state with a backlog of neglected petitions second only to the federal government's, experts say.

"The huge backlog ... has been a source of great shame for the state of Illinois for the last five or six years," said Jorge Montes, chairman of the state's Prisoner Review Board. "Illinois stood out as a bad example of a governor who was not taking this responsibility seriously."

New Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn says he hopes to review all petitions - from people asking that their criminal records be erased or their prison sentences shortened - by the end of the year.

Since he took office in January, he's approved 46 and turned down another 50. A chunk of those petitions dates to January 2003, the month Blagojevich took office.

"The governor's made a commitment to get the state back on its feet and running again, and this is part of doing that," said Quinn spokeswoman Marlena Jentz.

Clemency is an umbrella term that includes everything from pardons and expunging a criminal record to commutation of a prison sentence. The federal system had 2,172 petitions for pardon or commutation pending when President Barack Obama took office, and another 676 have come in this fiscal year, according to the Department of Justice.

Margaret Love, who tracks state pardon boards and governors, said she doesn't know of another state with a backlog bigger than that in Illinois. All states have a pardon process, but as of 2005 just 13 of them, including Illinois, have granted a substantial number of pardons each year, according to Love's book, "Relief from the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction: State by State Resource Guide."

In Pennsylvania, the pardon board has a backlog of 1,400 to 1,500 applications awaiting action, and so far this year has sent more than 90 recommendations to Gov. Edward Rendell that he has yet to address, according to board secretary John Heaton.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry faces a backlog of between 400 and 500 cases. In 2008, he granted 1,664 paroles and 54 pardons, and denied 89 paroles and 19 commutations, said J.D. Daniels, deputy director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

People seek clemency to pursue better jobs or more education, to seek compensation from the state or clear their names before they die. And in some cases, a conviction can affect applicants' immigration status.

For Steidl, 57, clemency would mean he'd never again have to explain to a potential employer why it took him so long to get out of prison. He first filed for clemency under former Republican Gov. George Ryan in late 2002 and submitted an amended petition in 2005, after he'd been freed.

"The cards are pretty much stacked against you, and it's pretty frustrating," said Steidl, who has had difficulty finding a job. "That piece of paper would clear my name once and for all, and I wouldn't have to constantly explain those 17-plus years."

When Blagojevich became governor, there were 10 clemency petitions awaiting review. He granted 134 during his six years in office and denied 2,200, but left even more unanswered.

Illinois' backlog under Blagojevich was so frustrating that the General Assembly last fall passed a law allowing exonerees to petition the county court of their conviction for "certificates of innocence," which would allow them to seek compensation even without a gubernatorial pardon.

Lawyers with the Governors Office of the General Counsel have been going through the backlog one case at a time since Quinn took office, making sure petitioners have had a recent background check, Jentz said.

The governor's office declined to discuss the details of Quinn's process for going over the petitions.

All awaiting his decision have been reviewed by the state's Prisoner Review Board, which provided a confidential recommendation about whether they should be approved. The 13-member board continued to hold quarterly public hearings and forward recommendations, despite the former governor's inaction.

"There was a great sense of angst, if you will, and we were frankly disheartened at all the work the board had done that was ignored," Montes said of Blagojevich's tenure.

The prisoner review board considers 150-200 cases each quarter, down from a high of 400 cases per quarter in 2003, Montes said, adding that the number plateaued as petitioners got discouraged that the governor wasn't ruling on them.

Defense attorneys and advocates for the accused have long resented Blagojevich's inaction, and they felt stung in the days after his Dec. 9 arrest on corruption charges when aides said he was avoiding the public eye because he was hard at work reviewing clemency petitions.

That month, Blagojevich pardoned 22 people. He also pardoned two on his last day in office, just hours before legislators voted to oust him.

Steidl said he looks forward to having the peace of mind a pardon would bring.

"When you've served all that time and had over a third of your life stolen from you, there needs to be a system in place in Illinois that can expedite your name being cleared once and for all to try to make yourself whole again," he said. "If that's ever possible."

-ASSOCIATED PRESS

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