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Shawn Vestal: Pardon would let wayward kids hear Ague’s story

Gov. Chris Gregoire has been fairly tight-fisted with pardons.

But Starcia Ague presented a case the governor couldn’t refuse. Ague – a young woman who has spent eight years triumphing over a criminal mistake she made at 14 – was pardoned by the governor last week. It clears the way for Ague to become, officially, what she already is actually: a role model. The pardon should get her past the background checks needed to work with kids in the juvenile justice system.

“I’ve been celebrating for days,” Ague said in a phone interview from the West Side. “I’m still celebrating. I think I’m just going to be celebrating the rest of the year.”

Ague’s case is truly singular. One factor the governor found persuasive was the line of people who came forward on her behalf – starting with the cop who arrested her eight years ago, and including the people who saw her putting her life back together at each step of the way.

The pardon was far from a sure thing, but for Ernie Hensley – a Spokane Valley man who, along with his wife, Kristi, has provided a family framework of support and encouragement for Ague – it had the feel of the inevitable.

“After seeing all the obstacles she’s come through, it didn’t surprise me that it happened,” he said. “I expected it to happen. There’s just something unique about Starcia.”

Ague’s story has been told and retold – in this newspaper, in Olympia hearing rooms, all over the place. Now it needs to be told and retold to young people who’ve made the same mistakes she did.

Ague spent her teenage years in juvie lockups, the result of three felonies from a 2003 robbery in Thurston County. Her childhood was a parade of poverty, homelessness, parental crime and neglect, but her determination was evident early on.

While she was locked up, she earned her high school diploma, developed a deep religious faith, and started working on her college degree, all before she was released in 2009. She started taking community college classes, then enrolled at Washington State University.

Along the way, Hensley recalls, she kept hearing that she would not be able to work with kids in the juvenile justice system. Not with Class A felonies on her record. He was sometimes told that he ought to protect Ague from her impossible dream, to make sure she understood that it wasn’t going to happen.

She graduated from Wazzu with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is working as a research assistant at the University of Washington’s Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy, a program focused on a wide range of children’s issues. Along the way, she’s become something of a fixture in Olympia hearing rooms, telling her story and lobbying in support of legislation to reduce the lifelong scarlet letter that juvenile crime hangs on kids.

Her application for a pardon received the unanimous support of the clemency board, though that didn’t guarantee her success. Before this, the governor had approved some 33 applications for clemency in more than 60 months, according to a Seattle Times review of the process and the governor’s office. On several occasions, she has rejected clemency bids that had the unanimous support of the Clemency and Pardons Board.

In this case, Gregoire was moved by Ague’s determination and effort to change her life – as well as the chorus of supporters who spoke up on her behalf, said spokesman Scott Whiteaker. Gregoire knew Ague’s story, having given her the Spirit of Youth award in 2009 – an honor that goes to a young person who’s made dramatic steps to change their life for the better.

“Based on everything that’s happened in the last few years, there’s a compelling case to be made that she’s really turned her life around,” he said.

And Ague’s turnaround could become a positive influence on lots of other juvenile offenders.

“Oftentimes the best role models for people in the juvenile justice system are people who have been there before,” Whiteaker said. There are a few remaining matters to clear up. Ague’s pardon does not mean that a conviction automatically gets removed from court files.

She may have to go to court to make that happen.

And then there’s the matter of her background check with the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration. She was rejected earlier, based on the felonies, which means she’s not approved to enter detention facilities.

This should change that. If there’s one place Starcia Ague ought to be right now, it’s back inside juvenile detention facilities. Sharing her story again.

“I don’t know if I should send them my pardon or what,” she said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or