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Pennsylvania Clearing the Way for More Clemencies and Commutations in 2022

by Jo Ellen Nott

April is Second Chance Month for those whose lives have been changed by an encounter with the criminal justice system in the United States. The state of Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, is taking a huge step forward in giving prisoners and ex-prisoners a second chance to rebuild their lives by clearing their prison record. Fetterman chairs the Board of Pardons, the panel with the power to reverse the damage wrought by an individual’s conviction and sentencing.

Often, an application for clemency or commutation to a Board of Pardons requires the applicant to a pay a fee by check or money-order, submit by mail a burdensome amount of documents from his or her criminal court case, and in some cases, to submit the documentation multiple times. Fetterman is determined to change this out-of-date, inefficient, and paper-based system with an automated online application process that will also have the benefit of eliminating phone calls to check the status of an application. After becoming Lt. Governor in 2019, the Fetterman-led Board of Pardons voted to eliminate the fees and to create an online application that is less cumbersome to complete.

Under the new digitization project introduced by Fetterman, each applicant will be able to file online and receive a unique account number that he or she can use to upload documents, check on the process, and communicate with board staff. Fetterman announced at a news conference that his goal for the Board of Pardons is to turn an application around in one year or less.

This is the kind of turnaround time that would have made a world of difference to Corry Sanders of McKeesport who appeared alongside Fetterman at the press conference. Sanders has been out of prison since the 1990s. In 2015, he began the process to clear two drug convictions that landed him there off his record.

Unfortunately, his pardon came in 2020, too late to save his election to the McKeesport city council in 2016. A judge voided the election results because of Sanders’ priors. Sanders supports the digitized application process because it will reduce the number of situations like his. “There are so many people out there who deserve to work towards a second chance in life, because second chances are very important,” he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, backs Fetterman’s project as does the Republican-controlled Legislature that approved $1.1 million to digitize the application process.

The Sentencing Project notes that Pennsylvania has long been a leader in the number of individuals on probation and parole, and the Restoration of Rights Project lists Pennsylvania among 17 states that have a process for clemency in which a significant number of applications are granted.

Fetterman’s project will carry on the legacy of Pennsylvania’s commitment to restore people’s rights to employment and a productive life after incarceration.

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