Patricia Adams was leaving a Berkeley County grocery store in 1997 when the doors suddenly locked in front of her. The police had been called because she was attempting to pay with a check that didn’t have her name on it, she said.
It was her husband’s check, she said, and he was waiting in the parking lot with her five kids. But instead of buying the family food, she would be charged with larceny by false pretense.
The family watched Adams walk out in handcuffs, she said. Her husband approached the officers to ask what was going on, but never told them that he allowed her to use his check to buy groceries for the family.
“Basically my kids had to see me go to jail for their dad’s check,” Adams, now 50, said.
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More than 20 years after the incident, the state of South Carolina granted Adams’ request for a pardon last month — essentially forgiving her for this crime and others. She anticipates the pardon will help with future job prospects, so she can continue to better herself for her children, and now, her eight grandchildren too.
But the pardon won’t erase Adams’ criminal past. Potential employers and anyone else who runs a background check will still see a list of all crimes she has been convicted of, alongside her pardon.
That reality — that an offender’s crimes follow him or her through life — is fueling a debate about whether South Carolina should expunge the criminal records of more offenders, especially those like Adams who have been granted pardons.
Expungements shield offenders’ criminal actions from public view, giving them better chances of landing jobs and building successful lives — a complete restoration of their rights, advocates say.
But critics counter that businesses and members of the public have a right to know if someone they’re looking to hire or someone who moved in next door has a criminal record.
SC frequently forgives
Granting roughly 400 pardons a year, or about 64 percent of eligible applicants, South Carolina frequently “forgives.”
Some lawmakers want to change the law so that, whenever an offender is granted a pardon, their charges and convictions also get swiped from their public-facing record.
Expunging those records so they are not publicly available would restore someones rights completely, said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and defense attorney. Instead, easy access to criminal records online makes it impossible for someone to move on from a dark past, “that scarlet letter,” he said.
The U.S. Constitution says the crime should fit the punishment, Rutherford said, “and what we’ve done is make it so some of these people cannot get a job for the rest of their life.”
This year, the state expanded the list of convictions eligible for expungement, the process by which a charge or conviction is removed from someone’s public record. Most notably, that list now includes ways to expunge multiple related offenses if they carry no more than 30 days and a $1,000 fine, and first offense convictions for possession with the intent to distribute drugs, including cocaine, crack and meth.
Critics of expanding the state’s forgiveness laws say the recent changes will hurt the public.
“What we’ve done now is saying that if you are a hiring entity — if you are dealing with vulnerable adults, if you’re dealing with children, if you’re dealing with anything where money is transacted — that you can’t get their record,” said Laura Hudson, a victims’ advocate who fought adding additional convictions to the list eligible for expungement.
However, not all offenders are violent criminals, Rutherford said.
Drug offenders get pardoned at higher rates than violent criminals, who have the odds stacked against them, according to an analysis of pardon hearing outcomes from 2007 through 2017 by The State newspaper in Columbia.
Offenders typically have a string of convictions for which they’re requesting a pardon. Roughly three in four applicants who had drug convictions received their pardons during that time, The State found.
In contrast, offenders who had committed the most violent of crimes were pardoned less often. Criminal sexual misconduct convictions received pardons about 10 percent of the time. Seven murderers were granted pardons out of 86 applicants in that same frame — a failure rate of 92 percent.
The state’s penchant for forgiveness puts it behind only Alabama, and in line with Connecticut, for sheer number of pardons granted in a year, according to the Restoration of Rights Project, which has tracked state policies and practices on restoring the rights of offenders since 2004.
According to the Restoration of Rights Project, the Palmetto State is one of 14 states that frequently grants pardons.
Seven states grant pardons regularly, but sparsely; 12 states grant pardons infrequently and inconsistently at the direction of the incumbent governor; and 19 states — the largest block of all — have granted few to no pardons in the last 20 years, according to the RRP.
In South Carolina, the state considers requests for pardons for any crimes.
But to be eligible, offenders must complete their sentences, pay restitution and, if on parole, successfully complete five years under supervision. Inmates also are eligible for pardons, but only if they can prove extraordinary circumstances or have terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of one year or less.
Why seek a pardon?
At the Sept. 5 hearing of pardon requests in Columbia, each of the 61 applicants heard some version of the same question.
“Tell me, how is this pardon going to help you?” asked Henry Eldridge, chairman of the S.C. Board of Paroles and Pardons. Eldridge oversees the seven-member board that meets once a month to decide who receives pardons in South Carolina.
An older man, who knife swiped a bouncer at a bar, said he sought the pardon because he wanted the state’s forgiveness before going to meet his maker. Another man, who got in trouble on prescription drug charges, said he sought the pardon to give his aging 89-year-old mother peace of mind in knowing he was forgiven.
The majority of offenders said jobs and the desire to restore their rights were driving them.
If an offender is still on parole, a pardon can end that state oversight, allowing the person to vote or run for office.
Like many others, Adams’ main drive to receive a pardon was to better her job prospects.
“I would apply for jobs and couldn’t get them,” Adams said. “And I’m sure that (the charges) was probably one of the reasons.”
Still others seek pardons as a path toward restoring their rights to apply for concealed weapons permits or to buy firearms.
A Upstate attorney had that in mind during the hearing when he spoke in opposition to the board granting a pardon to a man who once pointed a firearm at him and held him captive.
The attorney told the pardon board that he opposed the re-arming of his enemies.
“I can still forgive him, but I don’t have to face him with a gun,” he said, shortly after which the board voted unanimously to deny the man’s request for a pardon.
Though Adams didn’t serve more than a day at a time in jail, her crimes changed her, she said.
Because her husband — who she has since divorced — wasn’t helping, she was “forced” to commit the crimes she did to provide for her kids’ needs, she said.
In the early 2000s, Adams said she was writing bad checks to put food on the table. She knew there wasn’t money in the bank account, but still, she wrote the checks to buy groceries.
“I basically did what I had to do for my kids,” she said.
She wrote five fraudulent checks, all for $100 or less, she said. When those checks bounced and she received a notice to go to court, she paid back the money she owed, she said.
Before that, in 1996, she was charged with receiving stolen goods when she pawned jewelry her son’s friend gave her in Richland County. She didn’t know the items were stolen. She said she returned the jewelry to its rightful owner when she found out.
She did community service for that crime.
In February 2018, before taking a trip to California to see her newest granddaughter, she officially sought a pardon from the state. That process involved filling out an application and asking friends to write letters in support of her pardon and attesting to how she had changed — namely, leaving behind her life of crime, she said.
She told the pardon board the stories behind her crimes last month. They asked how her kids were doing, she said.
Adams had six kids, but only five are living. Those five are making her proud, she said. Her youngest, 21, will graduate from Coastal Carolina University this year. The others have already started careers of their own, and three of them have children.
Her job prospects are already looking up. Before her pardon was granted, she became a notary. She’s currently trying to get a business license to start her own cleaning service, she said. During the week, she cooks for kids at a GLEAMNS Head Start Center in Columbia, a program for low-income children.
After a brief wait in the hallway after her pardon hearing, an employee of the board came out to tell her it had been granted.
That feeling was unlike any other.
She immediately texted one of her daughters with a crying face emoji.
“She said, ‘Mom, what did you send me that for?’ (I said) Those are my happy tears.”