10/12/2011

Does an Alaska bank robber deserve clemency? Jill Burke | Sep 23, 2011

Shortly after Brian Petrilla walked into a bank wearing a ski mask, pointed a loaded gun at a teller’s head and demanded money, his recently chosen life of crime came to an abrupt halt.
He left with a few thousand dollars, a disappointing haul considering the risk. Petrilla spent 15 minutes on the run before the tracking device a bank employee stashed among the stolen cash led police directly to him.
Although Petrilla, now 35, has grown worlds apart from that boyish-looking teenage gang member, his current success and its limitations are inextricably tethered to that brief moment. He was fortunate no one got hurt, at least not physically.He did his time, went to college, got married, got a job and became a dad.
Yet for all of his successes, there’s one thing the reformed armed robber still wants: Petrilla seeks forgiveness. He wants a pardon. And he’s on a campaign to convince Gov. Sean Parnell to give it to him.
“There is no excuse for what I did,” Petrilla said in an interview earlier this week. “This whole process is not to excuse what I did. It’s that I did everything since then to be rehabilitated.”
Petrilla’s quest raises questions about the goals of Alaska’s justice system and reveals a deficiency in the state’s clemency policies. His story is one of a rehabilitated violent offender who, years later, returned to the same youth facility where he served his sentence. This time he entered as a staff member.
In December 2007, Petrilla signed on as a juvenile probation officer with the Division of Juvenile Justice, connecting the two ends of his transformative journey from hoodlum to law-abiding citizen -- and a person who has spent more than a decade contributing to the system that helped him turn his life around.
Because he was 17 when he stormed into an Anchorage branch of Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, Petrilla could have been tried as an adult, but he was spared the harsher outcome when a judge ruled in his favor and allowed the case to be handled in the juvenile system.
When Petrilla turned 16, things weren’t bad at home but he and his parents argued frequently, and he just decided it was time to leave, he said. Once on his own, he quickly fell in with the wrong crowd and made a lot of bad decisions. After Petrilla's arrest, Judge James Hanson described Petrilla as “17 going on 12 ... a very immature, self-centered, na├»ve young person with no sense of responsibility and no ability to provide for himself.”
Hanson was troubled by Petrilla’s brazen act that could have injured or killed someone, an action that had no specific underlying cause. His family wasn’t abusive and he had no mental health or drug or alcohol problems. Still, Hanson had reason to believe there was hope for Petrilla after experts who testified at the hearing said with structure and therapy Petrilla should mature and be able to fit into society.
Eighteen years later, Petrilla believe the court made the right choice. “I think that it’s undeniable the system worked in this case,” he said.
Despite his achievements and the fact that his criminal past doesn’t appear in background checks (juvenile records are confidential), Petrilla has encountered employment obstacles. He once hoped he might become a border guard, but was turned down when, during the application process, he was required to disclose his full criminal history. He could choose to lie but doesn’t, he said. His wife would like to run a home day care but can’t because of Petrilla’s past.
In 2007, Alaska expanded its definition of “barrier crimes” -- crimes which bar a person from professions requiring state licensure or certification --to include violent crimes committed by juveniles. The same law will prevent Petrilla from advancing within the Department of Health and Social Services, should he choose to do so. Because of this, Petrilla asks “if the system is meant to rehabilitate, why not complete it?”
In 2007, then-Gov. Sarah Palin signed a law that requires the governor and the parole board for the Department of Corrections to work side-by-side when considering requests like Petrilla’s. They have a mandate to keep victims informed about an offender’s request and to take victims' feelings about it into consideration.
The arrangement has thus far not worked to Petrilla’s advantage.
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