By Andrea Lindsay
Last week, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons (BOP) announced updates to its “expedited review” program for pardon applicants, promising to deliver pardons to more people, sooner.
This program adopts several of the expedited review tracks proposed in Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity’s (PLSE) 2022 report Expediting Pardons in Pennsylvania, which I authored, including a fast track for some applicants whose last contact with the legal system was 10 or 15 years ago. While this is a good start, the program does not go far enough.
According to the BOP website, the revisions are designed to “identify potentially meritorious candidates who demonstrate minimal criminal history and a consistent period of law-abiding behavior, and who otherwise present a low risk of re-offending and/or danger to the community, such that their applications may be expedited through the normal investigative and review process.”
This lengthy explanation raises more questions than it answers, which matters because pardons have a proven positive impact on communities across the commonwealth. Pardons increase recipients’ job opportunities and overall economic mobility, making the workforce more competitive and functioning, in the words of the Economy League, as a “no-cost community reinvestment strategy.”
Furthermore, despite the BOP’s concerning language suggesting otherwise, those applying for pardons—regardless of whether they successfully obtain one—pose minimal risk to public safety.
PLSE investigated over 3,000 pardon decisions over a ten-year period, finding that just two people—less than one-tenth of one percent—went on to commit a crime of violence after applying for a pardon. In fact, this rate was even lower among people who were denied pardons: only one person out of 1,955 was later convicted of a crime of violence, or 0.051%. Compare that to the 64.7% recidivism rate within a three-year period touted by the Department of Corrections.
Aside from a new checkbox on the pardon application, from the outside, the process looks the same.
The BOP members see themselves as gatekeepers of public safety. In reality, they are gatekeepers to jobs, housing, education, and material opportunities for advancement that allow our communities to thrive. Intense scrutiny of pardon applicants who have demonstrated positive change in spite of the barriers that criminal records create is unwarranted.
This is especially true for those who qualify for expedited review. Yet it is unclear how the BOP intends to review these applicants. Aside from a new checkbox on the pardon application, from the outside, the process looks the same.
Currently, a pardon application begins with an account of each conviction, an optional statement on why an individual is seeking a pardon, and the submission of official court documents for each case for which a pardon is requested, even those that are decades old. After an application is submitted, it can take over a year to be filed by the BOP, who then transfers the application to the Department of Corrections.
The BOP conducts its own investigation, which typically includes a lengthy phone interview and a review of an applicant’s full driving history. Then, an applicant may face another interview by the local District Attorney’s Office—which, in Philadelphia, is virtually guaranteed and will cause further delay. Finally, should an applicant be granted a public hearing, they will be interrogated by the five-member BOP themselves. This investigation and review process can take an additional two to three years after filing before proceeding to the governor’s desk for a final decision.
The BOP says the updates to the expedited review program are an effort to “address the backlog of applications.” In March of this year, there was a backlog of 1,700 pardon applications awaiting filing alone. Expediting applications without reducing the review process will not decrease the backlog; it will simply shuffle the deck.
Extensive questioning by multiple state and local agencies is inefficient, invasive, and unnecessary, prolonging the pardon process without providing a measurable benefit to our communities.
Until and unless the BOP shortens the actual review, the backlog will not be reduced, and a fully “expedited” process will not be feasible. Instead, the new expedited review program will simply create additional categories of deserving and undeserving, further delaying and obstructing the transformative potential that a pardon offers to good people, their families, and communities across Pennsylvania.
Andrea Lindsay is the director of strategic initiatives at Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which offers free criminal-record-clearing services to low-income Philadelphians.
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