RACINE — “I thought I was going to die with that on my record,” Tyson Willis, 47, said of his felony from 1994. It had hung over him like a curse.
After more than two decades as a law-abiding citizen, Racine man's sole felony has finally been pardoned
By Adam Rogan
He recalls moving high up in an interview process for a job, everything going well. But then the background check came back and showed a drug conviction from more than 20 years ago. Then the lines of communication went dead.
“A lot of people don’t like to hire felons,” Willis said. “I’ve been passed up for a lot of jobs … because of my felony.”
Prison Legal News reported in 2011, citing a study from the economic-policy thinktank the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Research has shown that having a history of incarceration reduces a worker’s chance of being hired by 15 to 30% and reduces the annual number of weeks worked by 6 to 11 weeks, with the effect being more pronounced among minorities and under-educated ex-prisoners.”
During Gov. Scott Walker’s eight years leading the state, Willis had applied for a pardon. For two decades, he’d lived soberly and consistently been working. But Walker never showed interest in issuing pardons; Willis received a letter from the Walker administration stating his application had been “indefinitely suspended.”
To him, that sounded about as bad as when he had been sentenced to 10 months in the Racine County Jail after a house he was dealing crack out of was raided.
Willis is the first to say he was “no kingpin,” but made mistakes by staking his life on drugs and hustling on “the streets” as a 19-year-old. A Chicago native and son of a single mother, Willis came to Racine because he said he’d heard from family that it was “easy money.” Bags of cocaine that sold for $10 in Chicago were selling for $20 in Racine. Simultaneously, the Belle City was experiencing one of its highest crime rates ever.
“I thought the streets basically was the life, we had to take care of ourself,” Willis told the Governor’s Pardon Advisory Board during a virtual session on Feb. 12 regarding how he viewed his opportunities as a young man — a perspective he now sorely regrets.
The late Racine County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Barry told Willis that he was sentencing him to 10 months in the Racine County Jail because he wanted to send a message about how he didn’t want people bringing drugs from Illinois “to my city,” Willis remembered being told.
But then, “while completing my jail time … I got out with a whole new look at life,” Willis told the Pardon Advisory Board. “I was 19 at the time. I’m 47 right now. In between that time and now, I went back to school, got my certifications, have a 30-year-old daughter … my son is 20 right now (and) lives in Dallas, Texas, working for the City of Dallas.” He’s a grandfather too.
After the heartbreak of being rejected for a pardon by the Walker administration, Willis needed the encouragement of his fiancée to just to be willing to apply again after Gov. Tony Evers was sworn in in January 2019.
“It was just a drug case. It shouldn’t have been hanging around for so long,” he said.
Evers has reactivated gubernatorial pardons in Wisconsin with an apparent enthusiasm: In his first 26 months in the state’s highest office, he has pardoned 157 people for offenses ranging from the desire to hunt to just getting the label of “felon” lifted.
“From mistakes made as teenagers to desperate times as they struggled with homelessness or substance misuse, what we have seen overwhelmingly from applicants is a desire to move forward, give back, and make peace with their pasts,” Evers stated in early February as he pardoned 37 Wisconsinites.
Walker pardoned zero people in eight years. In Donald Trump’s four years in the White House, he pardoned 143 people and granted commutations to 94 people, while Barack Obama was the most active in this field than anyone in the past half-century having granted clemency to more than 1,900.
“Through a pardon, an individual is given the opportunity to make amends and give back to their community and our state,” Evers said in a statement Friday. “It continues to be extraordinary listening to the stories of so many who have paid their debt and deserve a second chance.”
On Friday, Evers announced 13 new pardons. Willis’ name was on the list.
When Willis got the email, telling him his felony was finally effectively going away, he said he started crying and couldn’t stop. When he called his fiancée to tell her the news, she thought something was wrong because he couldn’t get the words out through joyful tears.
“The reason for my wanting this pardon today is for my pardon today is so I can get my lifelong job, so I don’t have to keep jumping job to job,” Willis told the Pardon Advisory Board. “I’d be in jobs two or three years, then all of a sudden something happens — ask me, I don’t know why.”
His previous job he had held for five years, but he was let go when COVID-19 hit. Quickly after that, he landed a job at A&E Incorporated in Racine, filling multiple roles on the floor, and it “is looking good so far.” He admitted it’s not his “dream job” — he wakes up around 3 a.m. daily to be at work by 5, and he’d rather be working with more people than machines — but it’s paying his bills.
He doesn’t have any more car payments; his restitution is paid off. With the felony gone, Willis said he’s more comfortable now than he’s been throughout his adult life.