Recently sober, and after seeing his daughter at Duke University, Earnest Mason knew he needed to make a change in 2000 to expand his opportunities.
“She looked at me suspect all them years to just August of last year,” he said.
Now the two observe an anniversary Aug. 24, because “August of last year is the first time she hugged me,” Mason said.
That change came after he went back to school for a master’s degree, became a certified peer specialist at Avita and will be 20 years sober in April.
After getting a criminal record, Mason worked to have his rights restored through a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in 2013. Now almost 30 years since his first charge, he has become a community resource for people trying to get their civil rights back, including the right to vote.
“When I lost mine in ’88, I was on a mission to try to get myself back together because of my mother. She thought I was underachieving in life. She said ‘Whatever you put your head to, you can do it,’” Mason said.
Mason is working to help Ron Sheats on his own pardon and restoration of rights. Sheats is part of the Newtown Florist Club and has spent the past few months trying to get other former felony offenders registered to vote in the upcoming November election.
“Especially those who are ex-felons or in the criminal system and all that, they feel like their vote doesn’t mean anything because they’ve been locked up or have a past,” Sheats said.
Mason’s entry into the criminal justice system came in 1988 on a drug charge, a crime he said he didn’t commit.
He tried to get away from the drug scene by joining the military, serving from 1976 to 1980 in active duty and another eight years in the reserves.
“When I came back here in ’88, it resurfaced. I had to do something about it,” Mason said.
According to the pardons and parole board, former offenders seeking the restoration of their civil and political rights must complete their sentence, including probation, fines and fees, within two years prior to applying. They must also have lived a “law-abiding life” during that two-year period. The rights restored include the ability to serve on a jury, be a notary and run for public office.
Former felony offenders can re-register to vote after finishing their sentence, though a Georgia Justice Project study in 2014 showed there is a lack of information among this group of potential voters.
The study by the advocacy group polled 200 people who had a criminal case or were involved with the organization. Three out of 10 with a felony conviction “reported having been told about voting rights restoration in Georgia,” according to the study.
A pardon from the state of Georgia will also restore civil and political rights as well as an “order of official forgiveness ... granted to those individuals who have maintained a good reputation in their community following the completion of their sentences,” according to the pardons and parole board.
It does not wash away the offense, but it “may serve as a means for a petitioner to advance in employment or education,” according to the board. The pardon, however, requires a five-year wait after the completed sentence and a “law-abiding life” during that time.
“That five-year window, that’s kind of tough on some of them. Because they’ll be good as far as (their criminal charges), but they’ll get a moving violation, and they don’t think it means a lot. I told them it does, especially when you’re trying to get a pardon,” Mason said.
When people contact him about the process, Mason said he discusses the restoration of rights and the pardon as the bigger picture instead of any one particular privilege.
“Voting is one thing, but restoration of your rights is the total package, because you can get your firearm (privilege) and all that sort of stuff back,” he said.
The firearm restoration application also requires three letters of reference from nonfamily members as well as an in-person interview with a State Board of Pardons and Parole staff member.
Even though he’s received a number of calls from people in the community, Mason said only a couple are on their way to actually completing the application and restoring their rights.
“From the time we talk to the next time I see them, they got some type of violation. It’s a revolving door at the jailhouse,” he said.
Sheats, a fellow veteran, said his last conviction on drug charges was in 1996. He voted for the first time last year and has worked with the Newtown Florist Club to get others like him registered.
As a deacon of his church who is also married to a preacher, Sheats said he has turned his life around. He has put his own pardon application on hold to work on getting the vote out for the November election.
After months of working on talking to former felony offenders and other potential voters in the community, Sheats said he thinks only a handful would actually get registered by last week’s deadline.
“Most of (former felony offenders) are grown. They’re on their own. They’re doing good and they just don’t want to be bothered. They just don’t want to relive that past. Even though they’re a felon, they don’t want anybody else to know it,” he said.