Pa.’s Board of Pardons sees spike in applications after eliminating fees

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

In the four weeks since Pennsylvania announced it would be free to apply for pardons, the number of ex-offenders asking the state to forgive their crimes has nearly doubled, data from the lieutenant governor’s office shows.

The Board of Pardons, which makes recommendations to the governor to grant pardons and clemency or commute sentences, has received 62 pardon applications since it eliminated $63 in application fees on March 18, a spokesperson for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the board’s chair, said on Thursday.

That’s a rate of roughly 15 applications per week. By comparison, the board received 84 applications between Jan. 1 and March 17 — roughly 7.6 per week.

A pardon signifies the state’s formal forgiveness for a person’s crime. Once the pardon has the governor’s signature, a recipient can petition a judge to wipe his criminal record clean.

Fetterman, who is leading criminal justice reform initiatives for Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, told the Capital-Star earlier this year that the pardons system was “in dire need of major revisions.”

His spokeswoman Christina Kauffman said in an email Thursday that he’s heartened to see the swell in applications.

“They show we’ve removed one more obstacle that prevents people from getting a fresh start,” Kauffman said. “Clearing up these old offenses changes people’s lives and helps them reach their full potential in employment, housing, and beyond.”

She added that most pardon applications the board receives are for “older violations of lesser-graded crimes.”

Before March 18, people seeking pardons had to pay $8 to access the pardon application, $20 for a criminal history record from the Pennsylvania State Police, and $10 for a driving record through PennDOT. The Board of Pardons also collected a $25 processing fee when the application was submitted.

Those fees were barriers to low-income clients whose wanted to erase their criminal records to access jobs and housing, said Brendan Lynch, staff attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

“We serve many people for whom $10, $20, or $25 dollars is a hardship,” Lynch said. “That’s very easy to overlook for people earning middle-class salaries or wealthy people … but we heard many people tell us that was a real burden.”

Lynch was part of a working group that helped the Board of Pardons identify ways to streamline the state’s cumbersome pardons system, which he said has been a deterrent for many ex-offenders seeking a clean slate. In addition to gathering reams of documents, applicants must submit written statements making their case for a clean criminal record.

Only a slim percentage of people who begin a pardon application complete it. According to Fetterman’s office, more than 3,400 people paid $8 to access the pardons application in 2017, but only 564 submitted it to the board.

“For years we have seen people express an interest [in applying] and not be able to follow through because they would hit one roadblock after another,” Lynch said.

Now that the Board of Pardons has eliminated fees, and continues its separate, ongoing effort to simplify the application process, Lynch hopes more people will see their applications through to the end.

Brandon Flood, the state’s new pardons secretary, said his next hope is to fully digitize the pardon process. But even as it becomes easier for ex-offenders to apply, he said, the board will maintain the same standard of rigor in reviewing cases.

It takes an average of 2.5 years for a pardon case to make its way from the board to the governor’s desk, said Flood, who was pardoned just last month by Wolf for drug and gun-related convictions from his youth.

The review process includes in-person visits by parole and probation officers, an initial merit hearing before the Board of Pardons, and finally a public hearing where the pardon seeker has 15 minutes to make his or her case before the board.

Pardon applicants will still have to show that they’ve taken responsibility for their crimes and prove that they’ve reformed themselves since being released from prison, Flood said. The board also hears statements from crime victims when considering applications.

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