Pa. Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on 4/8/19. Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek
Brandon Flood knows all about what it’s like to need a second chance. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that he was looking for one himself.
When he was 17, Flood was convicted on charges of possession with intent to deliver cocaine. When he was 22, he was nabbed on a firearms violation. He’d bought the gun to protect himself after he’d been shot three times by an “unknown assailant” in Harrisburg.
But his motivations didn’t much matter. Flood served nine years in prison across the two sentences. It was during a spell at the state prison in Chester County that he decided it was time to turn his life around.
Now 36, the beneficiary of a pardon, his record expunged, his lessons learned, and his past behind him, Flood was unveiled Monday as the new secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, where he’ll be in a position to hear the pleas of those looking for second chances of their own.
He’s well aware of the responsibility that comes with that position.
There are people who “want to bury that scarlet letter of a conviction,” Flood said Monday during a Capitol news conference. “It is about empathy. And oftentimes, when it comes it to these particular positions of influence, decision-makers do not possess that empathy. With me, you do have someone who is empathetic.”
Flood said Monday that he rarely speaks about his past to friends and colleagues because he didn’t want to be judged by the mistakes he’d made, but rather, by “the content of my character.”
And as crime victims rallied elsewhere in the Capitol on behalf of a proposal that would enshrine their protections in the state Constitution, Flood said his appointment “should not be viewed as undermining the integrity of the clemency process.” He said he planned to work closely with state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm to make sure that the interests of victims were also considered during the board’s deliberations.
Flood’s appointment by his new boss, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the pardons board, comes amid an ongoing policy rethink on criminal justice matters, as lawmakers try to tame costs, cut the state’s prison population, and reduce recidivism, even as they work to protect the rights of victims and make sure that the most violent criminals are behind bars.
It’s a push that’s stretched across the aisle, uniting progressive-minded reformers and such conservative activists as Americans for Prosperity, who see exploding prison costs as an unwise use of already stretched taxpayer dollars.
Those efforts, begun under the administration of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, continued by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and shepherded across both by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and allies in the General Assembly, have led to Pennsylvania being recognized as national leader for reform.
Since taking office in February, Fetterman has advocated for reforming the pardons process, which he argues is unnecessarily complicated and intimidating for those who want to use it. On Monday, he and lawmakers in attendance at the news conference argued for changes, some of which would require legislative authorization, to streamline its operations.
Under current law, for instance, a person who obtains a pardon must still go to court to seek to have his or her criminal record expunged from the record. Depending on the county and the circumstances, that process can be cost prohibitive for some applicants, Flood said, adding that he had to spend $1,500 to have his record expunged.
“We need an automatic expungement process,” said Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Washington County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “There’s no reason for people to go through that. We need to do it for them.”
Other changes, which do not require legislative approval, include bringing the pardons application process online. In an interview with The Capital-Star in February, Fetterman brought out a sample application, a roughly half-inch thick sheaf of paper, written in dense bureaucratese.
Republicans and Democrats on hand Monday both argued that a reformed pardons process held the key to improving the state’s economy and lifting the bar to opportunity to former inmates who’d done their time and wanted a new start.
“We cannot reform criminal justice without reforming the pardons process,” House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, said. “We’ve made strides. But there are many who are still locked out.”
In addition to his personal experience with the pardons process, Flood, a former state Senate staffer, also brings with him hands-on experience with the legislative process. His appointment will help improve “a process that’s important for all Pennsylvanians, to allow them to participate in our society,” Fetterman said.
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