Felons turn to ‘pardon guy’ to verify that they’re rehabilitated

Senior paralegal John Garbin, right, helps Winfred White at the Los Angeles County public defender’s office.
Senior paralegal John Garbin, right, helps Winfred White at the Los Angeles County public defender’s office.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

John Garbin hears from people who say they’ll commit suicide if he doesn’t help them.

Because of mistakes they made years ago — criminal mistakes — they can’t get a job, move on with their lives, or escape their tarnished reputations, even though they’ve served their time.

“The calls we get are from people who are absolutely desperate,” he said. “We do not live in a forgiving society.”

Around the Los Angeles County public defender’s office where he works, Garbin is known as “the pardon guy,” although it might be more accurate to call him the “certificate of rehabilitation guy.”

As a senior paralegal, he has spent the last two decades answering about 1,000 calls a year from felons, most of them drug offenders. He digs into each one’s history to confirm they have gone straight for at least seven years (about 5% to 10% fall short). Then he works to persuade a judge to grant them a wider path back into society. His success rate is an astounding 95%.


Such a certificate doesn’t erase the past, but it does restore some of the civil rights lost upon conviction. It also serves as an automatic application for a governor’s pardon, the ultimate badge of rehabilitation.

With Gov. Jerry Brown granting clemency more often than his recent predecessors, more people are flocking to Garbin for a shot at their governor’s pardon. For them, Garbin often seems their only hope.

“When you look at what goes through a courtroom, usually it’s bad news,” Garbin said. “Persons are sentenced to prison, they’re placed on probation, they’re losing civil rights, but [when] a certificate is granted, that’s a happy time. I’ve actually sat in the courtroom and cried.”

Garbin helps everyone he can, and as far as he knows, no one has gone so far as to commit suicide. But the emotional toll has made even him depressed at times.

At 77, he thinks about retirement, perhaps to a horse farm in Tuscany — he’s vacationed in Italy 11 times, captivated by the slower pace. But he never knows when the next phone call might be someone like Kim De La Peza.

She is 44 and lives in Sacramento now. But De La Peza was only 4 when her mother was brutally murdered in their Montebello home.

Although her parents had divorced, she moved in with her father. But, she said, he didn’t pay much attention to her: “I had no one there when I came home from school. I had no one there to give me a hug. I was very unhappy and very alone.”

At 13, she started drinking and smoking marijuana, savoring the escape. Through high school, the combination included LSD. In her early 20s, she tried methamphetamine, and spent the next decade not just constantly high but also selling and manufacturing the drug. She found herself stuck in abusive relationships and around dangerous people.

“I tried several times to stop but the addiction was too great — everything, the money, the power, the drugs, everything. It had such a hold on my life,” she said.

At 29, De La Peza was caught with a full meth lab in her car. In 2000, she was sentenced to four years in prison.

“From that moment, my life changed. That heavy weight of addiction and that blackness in my life was lifted from me,” she said.

Two years later, she was paroled from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, determined to mend her life and pursue her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian. Her potential quickly became apparent: She graduated summa cum laude from Cal Poly Pomona and got a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Michigan State University.

But getting a vet license and a job proved difficult with felonies on her record.

She talked to several private attorneys about getting a certificate of rehabilitation, but “none of them had ever done it before. One of them was going to charge $500 an hour.... Another said they’d charge me $1,500,” she said.

One day, she called Garbin to see if he could recommend someone, only to find out that he could help her himself — and for free.

Garbin took on her case in early 2009. Like De La Peza, most of Garbin’s clients want freedom from their criminal records.

“Everything is out in cyberspace today and everyone has access to records, and it’s very frustrating ... having people call and say, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t get on with my life,” he said.

Earlier this month, L.A. City Councilman Curren Price proposed that employers conduct background checks for job applicants only after a candidate has been found to be qualified. People who have been incarcerated have trouble reentering society, he said, because their convictions often disqualify them from jobs before they can even begin the application process.

As with all his clients, Garbin pulled rap sheets and conducted interviews to build a case for De La Peza’s rehabilitation. He does more than just flip through court records. He acts as a kind of therapist, providing guidance to people who frequently can’t find anyone else to listen. He becomes intimately familiar with their pasts; he hears their worst fears, their thwarted ambitions, their guilt.

Three or four months later, De La Peza was granted a certificate. She remembers crying in the courtroom. However, De La Peza’s chances of landing a full pardon seemed slim in 2009; Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, and over the 20 years that he, Gray Davis and Pete Wilson served only 29 pardons had been granted.

But then Brown took office in 2011, and has since granted more than 375 pardons.

Though Garbin has no control over who gets a pardon, he’s still proud of the 41 he’s gotten for clients under Brown; a copy of each pardon certificate is taped to a wall outside his office.

One is De La Peza’s. She got a call with the news just before Christmas. Now she works as a veterinarian, and says she owes it all to Garbin.

“I don’t know if that would’ve happened without him and his knowledge,” she said.

But not everyone is as lucky as De La Peza.

So despite dreams of retirement, Garbin continues with his work. His phone still rings endlessly. People call feeling lost and upset. There are many he can’t help. But he listens.

Twitter: @skarlamangla