Half a lifetime ago, when he was a teenager living in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, Walter Burnett Jr. was convicted of an armed bank robbery and sent to prison. Today, Mr. Burnett is an elected official, a city alderman whose short political career is now in jeopardy because of that criminal record.
Like most states, Illinois bars ex-felons from holding political office - unless the candidate-to-be gets a pardon from the state. When Burnett ran for and won an alderman's seat in 1995, his opponents declined to challenge him under the state law.
Now, anticipating a reelection race in February, Burnett is trying to convince the state that he has lived an exemplary life as a community leader, a husband, and a father, and should be pardoned for his criminal past. He recently pleaded his case before the state prison review board, which has made a confidential recommendation to Gov. Jim Edgar (R) about granting the pardon.
At the heart of this case is a profound question about whether people who've flouted the law should ever be responsible for safeguarding it. Most states have said no. But the case also evokes deeper concerns, about redemption and forgiveness, and about what it means to pay one's debt to society.
"I try to use my life as an example that if you do good and you lead your life in a good manner, things can turn around for you," says the soft-spoken Burnett. "What is important to consider is if a person like me doesn't get a pardon, people will think, 'What is the reward for doing good?' "
The alderman has a groundswell of support in the community he represents. A Chicago Tribune editorial called Burnett an "excellent, responsible" alderman who is "the perfect example" of why the law prohibiting felons from ever running for office should be overturned.
Burnett is not the first person with a criminal record to seek political office. Last year, a candidate running for mayor in Miami was tossed off the ballot because of a felony cocaine conviction. A businessman in Chicago's suburban Calumet City was also barred from running for mayor because he had been convicted of aggravated battery during a 1982 traffic altercation.
History, too, is replete with examples of criminals running for office. In 1920, Socialist leader Eugene Debs ran for president while serving time in prison for opposing US involvement in World War I. He garnered nearly 1 million votes. Boston's James Michael Curley, during his tenure as mayor in the 1940s, served time in prison for mail fraud and still held on to his office.
The idea that felons should not fully regain their rights of citizenship dates to the late 1800s, when many states passed laws prohibiting people with criminal pasts from voting or running for office. That movement gained momentum in the 1920s and '30s. Today, such laws fit squarely with the get-tough-on-criminals stance that is prevalent across the United States.
SOME scholars say a more democratic way would be to let voters decide if a person's criminal history should bar him or her from office. Others suggest it's inappropriate to deny rights to former criminals that are unrelated to the crime.
"We wouldn't say just because you've been convicted of a crime and gone to prison that you lose the right to sue," says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group that researches criminal-justice policy.
Officials who are convicted of stealing money while in office should be permanently kicked out of politics for abusing their position, says Edith Flynn, a criminal-justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. But cases like Burnett's, she adds, are "the ideal of corrective rehabilitation."
"The key issue is do we believe in rehabilitation and giving people a second chance, or do we not?"