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Pennsylvania aims to reduce wait for clemency by years

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — The process for inmates and ex-convicts in Pennsylvania to apply for clemency should go fully online by the end of the year, an effort to improve access to an emerging cornerstone of the nation’s criminal justice movement and to reduce the wait by years, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said Monday.

Fetterman said at a Capitol news conference that his goal is for the state Board of Pardons to use the online system to turn around an application for a pardon or commutation in a year or less.

The process often takes several years currently under what Fetterman calls an inefficient and paper-based system.

His goal, Fetterman said, is to make the process “much more rapid and much more responsive, and the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons is going to be able to be much more decisive and rapid because we’ll be getting the information much more timely and in a unified way.”

April is recognized nationally as Second Chance Month.

Fetterman as lieutenant governor chairs the five-member Board of Pardons, and has worked to transform the tiny agency into a bigger tool in a criminal justice reform movement working to undo decades-old laws and systems that inflated prison populations, disproportionately with racial minorities.

Inmates can win early release from prison under a commutation approved by the board and the governor. Someone convicted of a crime can win a pardon approved by the board, effectively wiping the conviction from their record to help them get a job or otherwise secure an unfettered return to society.

The board — which has under 10 employees and gets assistance from a couple of employees from Fetterman’s office — is dealing with more applications than ever, as Fetterman has drummed up awareness of the avenue.

Akeem Sims, who appeared with Fetterman at the news conference, said he applied for a pardon in 2015 and received it in 2021.

Sims — who now works for an accounting firm in suburban Philadelphia — said he once got rejected for a job in a Wal-Mart warehouse because of a drug conviction on his record.

He said he hoped the move to an online system would result in increased applications, awareness and approvals, “people actually being granted pardons and being able to live a fulfilling life.”

“At the time when I applied, you had to pay for the application, mail a money order, and wait for it to come back. And so now to have it accessible online, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” Sims said.

Often, an application requires dozens of pages of paper — if not more — from an applicant’s criminal court case and sometimes requires an applicant to submit information by mail multiple times. Checking on its status requires a phone call.

Under the new digitization project, each applicant should be able to file online and receive a unique account number that they can use to upload documents, check on the process and communicate with board staff.

Corry Sanders of McKeesport, who also appeared alongside Fetterman, hadn’t been in prison since the 1990s. Like Sims, he started working in 2015 to get two drug convictions that landed him there off his record.

Sanders was pardoned in 2020, but in the meantime a judge voided his election to the McKeesport city council in 2016 because of his convictions. A more streamlined application process, Sanders said, could help make situations like his less common.

“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.

Fetterman’s mission has been backed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, as well as the Republican-controlled Legislature, which approved $1.1 million to digitize the application process.

Currently, Pennsylvania is in the middle of the pack of incarceration rates when counting inmates in state prisons, according to The Sentencing Project, although it long has been a leader in the number of people on probation or parole.

The Restoration of Rights Project lists Pennsylvania among 17 states that have a regularly used process for clemency in which a significant number of applications are granted.

The pardons system once required someone seeking an application to mail in a check or money order, wait to receive the application by mail and then to mail it back in, filled out, with documents from their criminal case — and another payment.

After Fetterman took office in 2019, the Fetterman-led board voted to get rid of the fees and to create an online application that can be downloaded from online and is less cumbersome to fill out.