Amber White

Amber White, with her dog, Nova, on Thursday in Galena. White was stunned to learn Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers pardoned her for a felony she committed at age 17.

GALENA, Ill. — Amber White’s arrest marked the moment she could stop trying to numb her emotions.

Years of drug use had alienated her from family and left her homeless and, ultimately, restrained in handcuffs after she burglarized her grandparents’ home.

The arrest also records the start of White’s recovery, a 10-year journey of trials and victories.

“At that moment, I was feeling the most helpless and hopeless I had ever felt. I had plans to commit suicide two days later,” White said. “Prior to that, nobody really knew the battle I had in my own head.”

White, now 27 and living in Galena, recently passed another milestone.

She learned on Dec. 23 that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers would pardon her for crimes she committed as a teenager in Cuba City.

“It was the best Christmas gift I could have asked for,” White said.

Receiving a gubernatorial pardon in Wisconsin is exceedingly rare, especially in recent years.

Former Gov. Scott Walker suspended the operations of the state’s pardon advisory board and issued none during his eight years in office.

White pinned her hopes on Walker’s successor, Evers, who reinstituted the process after becoming governor in 2019.

He has granted 144 pardons to date, but that number represents a tiny fraction of the thousands of people who have committed felonies in Wisconsin.

“Put yourself in the governor’s shoes,” said Guy Taylor, senior staff attorney with the public defender’s office in Green and Lafayette counties. “You are going to look at whether the person is disadvantaged of having a very, very old conviction and see whether society would benefit or be harmed of the person being relieved of that burden.”

IT BEGAN WITH ADDICTION

A 17-year-old White sought money when she broke into her maternal grandparents’ Cuba City home in May 2011.

She was jobless and addicted to heroin, perpetually in need of the next high to stave off withdrawal.

White started to use drugs at the age of 12, trying alcohol, cocaine and painkillers, but her addiction had deeper, family roots.

“Trauma was my gateway drug,” she said.

White dropped out of high school her sophomore year and decided to move out of her mother’s Stockton, Ill., home. White was to leave town with her then-boyfriend.

She described their relationship as “toxic” and attributes the pressure she felt to use drugs, in part, to their age difference. He is 4½ years her senior.

At 15, White injected heroin for the first time.

“That was my priority,” she said.

White spent the next two years in the Chicagoland area, often living out of her car. They slept at night in the parking lots of gas stations or Walmart.

“You kind of sleep with one eye open, because it’s scary,” she said. “I got frostbite on my toes because we were out in the winter months.”

For about three years, White maintained employment, working in retail and as a certified nursing assistant.

Her absence from family alarmed them, yet also obscured the growing depths of her addiction.

“I would just leave and not show up or contact them for months on end,” White said. “They’re wondering if I’m even alive.”

In 2011, she returned to Cuba City, and at her boyfriend’s suggestion, broke into her grandparents’ home.

She stole $15 in pennies they kept in a money bag on their bedroom floor and several checks from her mother’s boyfriend, who also resided in town.

Surveillance cameras installed on her grandparents’ property captured the incident on video.

White was later arrested and convicted in Grant County Circuit Court of burglary, a felony, and two counts of misdemeanor theft. The judge sentenced her to two years of probation.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

White said she started recovery “from the bottom.” One of the few things she carried with her was her criminal record.

“I was ashamed,” she said. “I was very, very ashamed and disgusted with myself.”

White entered treatment shortly after her arrest. By the time her trial began in October, she had remained sober for almost six months.

White first lived in an inpatient facility but later moved to a halfway house. She saw therapists and attended a 12-step group.

White described the experience as a remedial education in living.

“A life of addiction is not a life,” she said.

By 2015, White had obtained her GED, and completed her bachelor’s degree four years later. All the while, she struggled to find employment and housing.

“I had a couple of job offers that were revoked,” White said. “Not many people want the liability of a felon on the lease.”

People who have been convicted of felonies experience the stigma of “labeling,” said Nancy Gartner, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

“It’s the idea that someone gets the label of being criminal,” she said. “That becomes their identity.”

White moved to Galena in 2019 to care for her paternal grandmother after her grandfather died. Throughout White’s recovery she had remained close to them and credits their bonds and struggles as what motivated her to pursue a career in geriatric social work.

But White worried that her record might preclude her from obtaining her license.

She had unsuccessfully petitioned for expungement in Grant County Circuit Court, but after several rejections, pinned her hopes on a pardon.

White submitted an application to the Governor’s Pardon Advisory Board in October 2019, attaching 17 letters of recommendation.

More than a year later, she received the response she had long sought.

PARDON ARRIVES

People may apply for a pardon in Wisconsin five years after completing their sentence, absent committing any new crimes.

While a pardon restores some rights lost when a person commits a felony, including the right to hold public office, possess firearms and serve on a jury, it does not result in expungement.

Yet White was stunned when she received word last November that she was to appear before the pardon board the following month.

Over a Zoom call, she had 15 minutes to explain her background and the steps she has taken to rectify her misdeeds.

Several days later, White was watching television with her grandmother. She opened her email during a commercial break.

One bore the subject line, “pardon decisions.”

“You are receiving this email because the Pardon Advisory Board has recommended to the governor that you receive a pardon and the governor accepted the board’s recommendation,” the letter said.

They celebrated by ordering take-out.

“Recovery is lifelong,” White said.

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