Creating Pathways to hope
On Sept. 22, Senator Lisa Boscola and Lt. Governor Mike Stack held a two-hour presentation at Bethlehem city hall called Pathways to Pardons. The presentation, part of a statewide tour, is designed to reach into communities and spread a message of hope.
For the average American, the decisions of applying for a new job, moving to a new apartment, or volunteering at your child’s school are within reach. But for a silent growing minority of Americans, these simple decisions and goals are completely unattainable. These are the people that Lt. Gov. Stack is trying to reach with his new initiative, Pathways to Pardons. The name of the event barely scrapes the surface of this in-depth topic.
Senator Boscola started the night by sharing about a recent visit to a local college. She was disheartened by stories from students who were preparing to graduate, but knew their dream job would be out of reach because of a criminal offense in their past. That experience helped fuel her interest in the pardon process, and the desire to dismiss the “fear or feeling that going down the pardon path is not easy.” She stressed that she does not want people to be deterred from trying.
Stack added that lots of people make mistakes, change their lives, rehabilitate and should be fully reintegrated back into society. “We shot ourselves in the foot as a society by being hard on crime. They say we are being soft on crime, but we prefer to think of it that we are being strong on justice.” His ultimate goal is to make the pardon process clearer and easier, but like all lawmaking efforts, it is complicated, and takes a lot of time and negotiating. So in the interim, he has started this statewide event, to try and reach out and get people started in the process.
The Underlying Reasons
Before digging into the pardon process, two speakers explained the important link between addiction recovery and the criminal justice system as a whole. Dr. Ken Martz has been in drug and alcohol recovery for over 20 years. He spoke simply to share a message of hope, and that recovery isn’t just a hope, but a reality. He sees Pathways to Pardons as another tool along the way to rebuilding hope and reality for so many people. It is estimated that seventy percent of people currently in the criminal justice system have some form of substance abuse disorder. Outside of the criminal justice system, it is estimated that one in four Pennsylvania families are affected by addiction. Bill Stauffer of Pro-A, shared that he himself has been in recovery since October 20, 1986. From his perspective, the pardon process should be taken “one step at a time, just like recovery.” He also added to Senator Boscola’s sentiment that so many people exist in our local community living normal lives and taking care of their families that are barred from taking on jobs that could improve their lives. “I know people who pursued social work degrees and then found out that they couldn’t pursue what they were doing. Nurses, people who went to nursing school, which we have a shortage of here, who couldn’t become nurses because of felonies in active addiction.” He added that what really needs to be discussed is “when a person gets in recovery and stays in recovery, they are not the same person that they were when they were in active addiction. They are changed people, and are perhaps the greatest untapped resource in most communities.”
Beyond massive employment barriers, people seek pardons for other reasons too. A criminal record can prohibit you from obtaining housing, running for public office, sitting on a jury, serving in the military, traveling internationally, and owning a firearm or hunting. Matt Franchak, Chief of Staff to Lt. Gov. Stack spoke about common misconceptions in the pardon process. The process is long, averaging three years, so it is not a quick solution to an imminent problem. All pardons have to go through the Board of Pardons, not just to the Governor. He frequently sees people send written requests to the Governor directly without following the required process. After receiving a pardon, you still must go back to the county of the offense, and use the pardon paperwork to get the record expunged. Without following that expungement process, the pardon carries little effect. But the biggest piece he stressed is that you must show remorse, responsibility, and ownership for what happened in your past. Any attempt to treat the pardon process as a new hearing, an opportunity to deny your involvement, or to otherwise deny your actions, is an immediate red flag to the board.
The Pardon Process
People who are ready to put the past behind and start the pardon process are encouraged to review the most current application process and required documentation, published on the Board of Pardons website (www.bop.pa.gov). In addition, an applicant will need documentation from the original offense, including but not limited to, criminal complaints or citations, sentencing orders, proof of payment of fines, costs and/or restitution. Most of this information can be located on the state website http://ujsportal.pacourts.us. Other documentation required includes a PA State Police criminal history record, a full driving record and a passport size photo.
Once all of the application documents are compiled and submitted, an investigating agent will contact applicants. It is of the utmost importance that applicants keep in contact with this person throughout the process, especially if any changes occur. The investigating agent prepares the entire case and completes a full report. This report forms the basis for the Board to vote on whether that applicant deserves a public hearing. If a hearing is granted, it is held in the PA Supreme Courtroom, the applicant must appear, and may have others speak on their behalf. Victims and members of the public, along with the District Attorney’s office, and the Sentencing Judge are also given opportunity to state any opposition to the application. After the hearing concludes, the Board will vote on whether to recommend or deny an application. For denied requests, applicants can look into the process of reconsideration or re-application after twelve months. Applications that are approved then move to the desk of the Governor for review.
For people who are currently serving sentences for crimes, there are still options to commute your sentence. The Board of Pardons estimates that this is typically fifteen percent of the applications they see on an annual basis. Reasons for commutations include reducing a death sentence to life, life in prison to release on parole, changing of the minimum or maximum sentence, and the granting of a full pardon.
There are currently 5,465 people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania, and 157 people sentenced to death. Governor Wolf has commuted two life sentences during his administration, and currently has the first female recommended for commutation since 1990. Steve Burk, Secretary of the Board, gave a short synopsis of the process for inmates seeking relief. Lifers should anticipate serving at least twenty years, with ten years of good conduct. A candidate should be working throughout their confinement, and have an active release plan. The prison system also prepares people with life skills to reintegrate into society. Thinking of the advances in technology over the past twenty years, simple things like computers and cellphones can be a shock once people are released. It is also important that inmates are prepared with education and behavioral treatment for any underlying problems. The process for commutations follows a similar structure to the pardon process, applicants are encouraged to reach out to the PE Dept of Corrections Bureau of Treatment Services for further information.
Additionally, U.S. veterans who are currently incarcerated are encouraged to reach out and let their status be known. It is a common misconception that Veterans rights are forfeited upon incarceration. Ryan Yoder the Veterans Coordinator for the PA Department of Corrections stressed how important it is for Veterans to be sure that their status is clearly represented. Even upon incarceration, veteran’s rights such as health benefits are not to be terminated. There are Veterans service units across the state that serve as an alternate form of confinement, that are focused on comradery and preparing vets for re-entry after incarceration.
What alternative solutions exist?
Scott Williams, Esq. from NorthPenn Legal Services in Bethlehem closed out the night with an alternate solution. As the pardon process can take over three years, when facing barriers to employment or housing, that timeline sometimes cannot offer a reasonable solution. That is why he uses his expertise to help people obtain Limited Access Orders (LOA). These orders allow ex-offenders a chance to join the workforce. A criminal record is not pardoned, expunged or erased. The order simply allows the record to be sealed so that employers, the public, or any other noncriminal justice agency can access or view that information.
The LOA process is carried out in the County where the arrest occurred and is reviewed and processed by the District Attorney. There are numerous requirements in order to qualify; applicants must be free from arrest or prosecution for ten years from the final release from the offense, and the entire criminal record will be reviewed. The potential punishment for the underlying offense must meet certain criteria and will be scrutinized in addition to the number of offenses. Additional information on this process can be obtained at PLSEphilly.org.
If an LOA is granted, applicants can legally state on job applications that they have not been convicted of a crime, without fear of firing. In fact, once granted an LOA, if an employer were to learn of the sealed offense, firing for that reason would open the employer to potential lawsuits and litigation.
The final topic discussed was the expungement process. Attorney Williams noted that people commonly confuse what can be sealed versus what can be expunged. Expungements can be granted after receiving a pardon from the Governor, after completing ARD for certain offenses, to remove summary offenses after a five-year period of being arrest free, or after ten years for citizens over age seventy. Additionally, if a charge was dismissed, withdrawn, or found not guilty, it can be expunged completely from a record.
All of the presenters hope to make the process easier, and clearer with time. Additional information can be found on the Board of Pardons website, www.bop.pa.gov, and the Pathways to Pardons event will continue to travel the state, with multiple dates in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and other areas throughout the remainder of the year.