The Pardon Project
In October 2018, PLSE launched a new initiative to help low-income Philadelphians clean up their criminal records. Called the Pardon Project, it seeks to partner with established and respected organizations in low-income/high-arrest communities to help people who have turned their lives around obtain expungements of information about any arrests that did not result in convictions, and pardons for those that did.
If you are ever arrested in Pennsylvania and charged with a crime, even if you never had to go to court on it or if you were found not guilty, you have a criminal record. Every crime you were charged with is permanently available on the internet to the public, for free, at any time, unless a judge orders it to be erased (expunged). If you were convicted of a crime, even if it was just a minor offense or happened decades ago, the only way to get it erased from your record is to get a pardon from the Governor.
Written in words that few but lawyers understand, criminal records (“rap sheets”) are considered by an estimated 80% of employers and 87% of landlords during background checks; credit agencies, retirement homes, and assisted care facilities likewise check them as a matter of routine. Criminal records exclude people from thousands of jobs, professions, schools and trades that are licensed by the state where “good moral character” is a requirement for admission. Adults with criminal records are not allowed to go on school trips with their children, coach them in sports leagues, or volunteer in community activities. These specific punishments do not take into consideration the general, emotional and psychological harms inflicted on people by being forever branded “criminals”.
People change; records don’t. As the executive director of the Fels Fund recently said, “It’s crushing that what someone was charged with 10 or 15 years ago, very often when they were young adults, can completely wipe out everything that person has done since then to improve themselves, even if they have accepted responsibility.” The Pardon Project was created to give people who have improved themselves a realistic chance to stop being defined by the worst things they’ve done.
The Pardon Process
People think it’s almost impossible to get a pardon in Pennsylvania. The numbers suggest why: of more than 3,000 Applications for Clemency distributed by the Board of Pardons in any one year, the highest number of pardons recommended in any one year by the Board was just 288.
But the unknown story is that the Board is today approving over 80% of the applications that make it through the “merit review” stage. The huge drop-off comes from the fact that over 75% of the applications are never “officially filed” – they were either not completed and submitted, or administratively rejected because they were incomplete. Still others fail because they did not tell the person’s story accurately, fully or well.
While the Application for Clemency is long (at 7 pages, with 10 pages of instruction) and confusing to someone who doesn’t know anything about the pardon process or criminal history records, it is actually fairly straightforward, just complicated. Completing the form takes a lot of effort, attention to detail, and gathering many official documents from several different locations. Words may be misunderstood (for example, “incident date” is not the same as “arrest date” even though it is an arrest record). Errors (transcription, spelling, and even failing to put “N/A” in every box that doesn’t apply) routinely result in rejection. And, even if the application is perfectly completed, “it takes approximately (3) years for an application to be merit reviewed from the date the application was officially filed,” as the form itself warns with emphasis.
While lawyers can be very helpful, they are out of reach for most people with modest family incomes. What’s needed is to provide information, guidance, help and support along the way, and this can be done by anyone who has been trained, who is not afraid of government forms, and who has the desire to help others.
The Pardon Project partners PLSE with existing social service organizations that are already trusted in the community: communities of faith, workforce development agencies, CDCs, FQHCs, United Way agencies, or any other non-profit. What’s required is that the organization have staff and volunteers who can be trained to coach, space for training that is connected to the internet, and an aligned mission to serve. At those locations (called “Pardon Hubs”), PLSE will hold community education programs on the creation, dissemination and destruction of criminal records, conduct intakes for expungement services, and train the Hub’s staff and their volunteers. Those people, in turn, will be present and available in the community as resources to not only help people complete the forms, but encourage them to do the kinds of things that the Board of Pardons look for at the “merit review”: employment stability, community service, and personal growth and control (especially for those whose crimes involved diagnoses of drugs, alcohol or psychological impairment).
As their numbers grow, the Pardon Hubs will become resources for each other – connected by geography, mission or faith, sharing what works and best practices, and allowing the Pardon Project to reach its potential as a community-driven initiative. PLSE will provide ongoing training and expertise to the Hubs and, for the applicants who need them, volunteer lawyers to provide a final review of the application, help in preparing for the investigative interview with the Department of Probation and Parole, and, still later, the public hearing in Harrisburg.
Today, the Board of Pardons merit reviews only 600 applications per year from across the whole state. PLSE envisions a system where the Board receives thousands of well-written applications each year just from low-income Philadelphians, where the state responds more efficiently and successfully with investigative strategies better suiting the variety of situations presented in the applications, and where a realistic hope of civic forgiveness within a reasonable period can be offered to all those who have demonstrably transformed their lives, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status. PLSE sees this not only as a matter of social justice, but as a crucial component of community economic development in a city that desperately needs all its residents producing at their highest and best abilities.