BOSTON — It's been nearly 15 years since Thomas Schoolcraft was caught breaking into homes in Plum Island and New Hampshire – crimes that branded him a felon.
For Schoolcraft, then an 18-year-old high school dropout, the arrest proved a turning point that led him to get a GED and eventually pursue a master's degree in criminal justice at Boston University. But the felony charge lingering on his record also kept him from getting a state-issued firearms license, something he needed to pursue a career as a corrections officer.
Schoolcraft thought his luck had turned when he was granted a rare executive pardon in 2015 from Gov. Deval Patrick, one of only four issued by the Democrat during his eight years in office. The Governor's Council narrowly voted to approve the pardon but not before Patrick attached a condition aimed at allaying their skepticism — no firearms license.
Schoolcraft, who now lives is Groveland, said the restriction has made it impossible to find work in his chosen field.
"My life has been a living hell," said Schoolcraft, now 33.
He's applied for jobs at several sheriff's departments in the state, only to be turned down. Rejections letters don't cite his criminal past, but at least one referenced the pardon as reason for not hiring him. In the meantime, Schoolcraft says he has six-figures worth of debt from student loans and legal fees that he is trying to repay.
"Unfortunately, for most corrections jobs you have to be firearms-eligible, if not licensed," he said. "So my career is basically done — over before it began."
What's more, he said he's been passed over for applicants with no experience in law enforcement and nothing more than a high school diploma.
A common problem
Schoolcraft's struggle to find work illustrates the hurdles faced by those convicted of crimes trying to return to the workforce, even under the best of circumstances, according to criminal justice experts.
Recently he sought to have his criminal record permanently erased under the state's new expungement law, which covers juvenile records and some crimes committed between ages 18 and 21, including felonies. Unlike a pardon, which officially seals a person's record, expungement permanently erases the record from state and court databases.
But a Newburyport District Court judge rejected his request in April, despite testimony in support of expungement from a Governor's Council member and a victim of one of Schoolcraft's crimes. The judge cited opposition to the request from the Essex County District Attorney's Office and a reluctance to overturn the conditional pardon granted by the Governor's Council.
Governor's Council member Eileen Duff, who backed a full pardon for Schoolcraft and testified in support of his expungement request, says he is being treated unfairly.
"This is a man who made a mistake as a teenager but who has totally turned his life around, getting a college education and dedicating his life to helping young people who get caught up in the criminal justice system," said Duff, of Gloucester, who represents the Council's 5th District. "But, instead of helping him out, we punished him."
Terry Kennedy, another member of the council who backed a full pardon, said he believes Schoolcraft should have had his firearms rights restored.
"People shouldn't be using his criminal record against him; he has a pardon," Kennedy said.
Schoolcraft said he started his life on the wrong foot as a dropout and got mixed up with the wrong people. He and a friend broke into four homes on Plum Island in 2004, then targeted homes along the New Hampshire seacoast. They weren't armed during the break-ins, and Schoolcraft said they had no intention of hurting anyone.
Schoolcraft said he began questioning what he was doing during a break-in in Rye, New Hampshire, when he encountered an elderly woman sleeping in bed.
"I was horrified," he said. "I knew at this point that what I was doing was wrong."
When his friend was arrested and implicated him, Schoolcraft confessed and cooperated with law enforcement, helping them recover some of the stolen items, according to police reports. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to a single count of felony breaking and entering after admitting his part in the Plum Island housebreaks, and he was sentenced to two years probation.
He was also convicted in New Hampshire for taking part in housebreaks in that state, where he served eight months in the House of Corrections.
To be sure, Schoolcraft's application for a pardon was filled with recommendations from family members, college professors and New Hampshire corrections and state officials. Even a victim of one of his Plum Island burglaries testified in support of his pardon.
The state Advisory Board of Pardons recommended a full pardon for Schoolcraft, saying it would "advance the interests of justice."
"He has the talent, experience, education and motivation to make considerable contributions to criminal justice agencies who assist offenders with rehabilitation," the advisory board wrote in its recommendation. "A youthful criminal record should not preclude Schoolcraft from making those contributions to society."
He was one of four to get a pardon under Patrick, who waited until his final year in office to make the recommendations. The pardons were eventually approved by the eight-member Governor's Council.
In 2013, Schoolcraft requested a pardon from the New Hampshire conviction but was denied. He was later granted an annulment that wiped his record clean.
Past follows him
Schoolcraft said he is considering leaving Massachusetts to find work elsewhere, but he said questions about his criminal past are still coming up in interviews.
He's considered petitioning Gov. Charlie Baker for a full pardon, but knows he would face an uphill battle.
Baker, a Republican, hasn't granted any pardons or executive clemency since he took office in January 2015, despite receiving hundreds of requests over the past several years.
Schoolcraft said while state leaders talk about reforming criminal justice to help ex-offenders get their lives back on track, the state's rehabilitation system remains cruel and unforgiving.
"I can never take back what I did, but after 15 years, the system needs to let go of me," he said. "Once you pay your debt to society, at some point the punishment needs to end."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com