Clemency in Pennsylvania

Law's Just and Merciful Aims

Criminal convictions are hard, burdensome, even crippling in the worst cases. Punishment of crimes in America is supposed to be rehabilitative. Offenders who have paid their debt to society should gain a new lease on life. Cruel punishment beyond what the offender deserves serves no one. Indeed, a punishment that unduly handicaps and demeans can keep an ex-offender from recovering any semblance of a normal life, burdening not only the ex-offender but the family and community in which the ex-offender should have been able to work and live. The society that treats its rehabilitated offenders cruelly hurts itself, leaving reformed and ready citizens in the dark and unproductive shadows. Law is supposed to be just. But the law is also supposed to be merciful, redemptive, and restorative. And when the law, as applied in any one case, is instead cruel, harsh, and demeaning, the law should provide appropriate relief.

Clemency to the Rescue

Clemency is an odd word simply meaning mercy or leniency. Law uses the word clemency to describe authorized means of making a convicted defendant's punishment less harsh. Relief from unduly harsh and demeaning punishment is the important role that Pennsylvania clemency plays. Courts and prison officials don't always get it right, especially in hindsight. Clemency corrects punishments that, in retrospect, prove to be unnecessary, unproductive, unfair, and unduly harsh. Pennsylvania's clemency laws preserve public trust. Clemency laws prove that any punishment that the state's criminal courts mete out to those whom the state convicts of crime need not, in the long run, be cruelly unjust. No one should want to be a member of a cruel society. Clemency laws ensure that we are not. A state without clemency is a state without a heart and a state without a soul. Pennsylvania is a better commonwealth for having laws of clemency.

Clemency's Many Good Effects

Some members of the public may nevertheless be cautious, even leery, about granting clemency to a person convicted long ago of a serious crime. Caution may be appropriate. The boards that recommend and officials who grant clemency are themselves cautious, sometimes to a fault. But clemency has many good effects. Clemency can rescue a rehabilitated, reformed, and deserving defendant from the clutches of prison. Clemency can free the incarcerated defendant to return to work, care for dependents, and contribute otherwise to the defendant's community. Clemency can reduce prison populations of persons who need not and should not be incarcerated at substantial public cost. Clemency can allow a reformed and rehabilitated defendant, and a terminally ill or elderly defendant, to spend their last years caring for and in the care of loved ones. These grand aims of clemency laws aren't just philosophical speculation. These aims undergird the criteria on which defendants win clemency.

When Clemency May Be Available

Pennsylvania's laws reserve clemency for defendants who have already suffered conviction on criminal charges or who may face criminal charges and convictions for past actions. Clemency isn't immunity. Clemency doesn't enable individuals to go forth and commit further crimes. Clemency instead looks back, relieving the defendant who wins clemency from the consequences of prior crimes. Clemency is not a form of relief that a defendant argues for in criminal court to avoid conviction on a pending charge. You won't hear your criminal defense attorney arguing with the prosecutor and advocating with the court for clemency. Courts instead determine whether the charged defendant is guilty or not guilty. Courts do not determine whether to grant a guilty defendant clemency. Clemency comes from outside the court proceeding, recommended by other state boards, and granted by other state officials who have no direct role in court or relationship with the court.

Clemency Forms

Pennsylvania clemency provisions can take three forms, including reprieves, pardons, and commutations of a defendant's sentence. Each form of Pennsylvania clemency, including reprieves, pardons, and commutations, serves in a different situation. But all three forms have the end, aim, and function of keeping criminal sanctions reasonable and just. Members of the public, and defendants charged with or convicted of crimes, often confuse reprieves, pardons, and commutations. Each of the three forms of clemency have somewhat different procedures to apply to their different situations. If you face, or someone you love faces, the need for clemency, you'll soon learn the differences between clemency's three forms, reprieves, pardons, and commutations.

The Difference Between Clemency and Probation or Parole

Defendants charged or convicted with crimes, their family members, and members of the public may also confuse the three forms of clemency, reprieves, pardons, and commutations, with probation or parole. Clemency, in any of its three forms, differs from probation or parole, even though clemency has some of the same effects as probation or parole. Criminal courts have the authority in some cases to grant probation to a convicted defendant, saving the defendant from incarceration under conditions the defendant hopes to satisfy. Corrections boards and officials have the authority in some cases to grant parole, which is a conditional release from prison before the end of the imposed term. Probation and parole are limited, conditional forms of relief from incarceration, requiring the defendant to undergo continuous supervision at risk of returning to jail or prison.

In contrast, clemency, depending on its form and terms, can seal the defendant's record of conviction or lead to the record's expungement, freeing the defendant from all or most impacts of the conviction and more fully restoring the defendant to ordinary life. If you or a loved one need or deserve clemency relief from incarceration or impending incarceration, retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to assist you. Don't miss the best opportunity for meaningful, lasting relief.


A reprieve, one of Pennsylvania's three forms of clemency, postpones a defendant's incarceration or other punishment. Commonly, a reprieve means nothing more than to delay a punishment that the court has already imposed. If, for instance, the punishment is death, but circumstances exist to question whether death is an appropriate punishment, the governor may delay the death sentence indefinitely. A reprieve delaying a death sentence also goes by the name of a stay of execution. While reprieves are a common clemency form in capital punishment cases because of the death sentence's final nature, reprieves may also be available to postpone jail, prison, or other sentences. Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution grants the state's governor the power to grant a reprieve.

Reasons for Reprieves

Reprieves are legal means of delaying sentences. But a defendant needs a good reason to justify a request for reprieve. Those reasons often reside in practical issues the defendant faces in obtaining justice from the court or other officials controlling the defendant's liberty. For instance, a defendant who has already suffered a conviction but has a legitimate appeal from the conviction may seek a reprieve or stay of sentence to address the practical issue. Perhaps the defendant's attorney has resigned, died, or fallen ill, requiring the defendant to obtain new counsel. Or an appeals court may have dismissed the defendant's appeal on technical grounds so that the defendant needs more time to refile the appeal under other rules or needs outside relief from an unjust conviction. The governor need not give any reason for a reprieve, but the following are common reprieve grounds:

  • Attorney illness, death, or other unavailability, or non-performance
  • A late or otherwise defective appeal of a plainly unjust conviction
  • Unaddressed defects or errors in the trial resulting in an injustice
  • Extraordinary personal circumstances justifying extraordinary relief
  • An unfairly harsh sentence having unusually dire consequences

If you or your loved one faces a sudden and emergency need for a reprieve, promptly retain the representation of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney. Reprieves are not ordinary court proceedings. They are extraordinary requests to the governor to interrupt and effectively suspend a court sentence. One branch of government, the governor's office, doesn't take lightly interfering with another branch of government, the judiciary. A defendant must make an extraordinary showing to win a reprieve. To make that extraordinary showing, retain an extraordinary lawyer. Hire Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento for your reprieve matter.

A Reprieve's Duration

A reprieve is not forgiveness for the crime. A reprieve only delays the execution of the sentence while the defendant seeks to overturn the conviction. A reprieve thus lasts only as long as the governor grants it. Some governors allow some reprieves to last indefinitely. But if the defendant's circumstances change, for better or worse, the governor may withdraw the reprieve, permitting the court to move forward either with the sentence or with other relief the defendant may have won in the meantime. If the governor's term ends and a new governor takes office, the new governor need not continue the reprieve. For this reason, defendants who are free by governor's reprieve may need to act diligently to resolve in their favor the appeal or other circumstance that justified the reprieve so that the defendant can remain free if the reprieve ends. Reprieve is a powerful but imperfect remedy. Reprieve works fantastically well for some defendants but not others. Retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to advise you on the chances and benefits of reprieve.


A pardon is the governor's official forgiveness of a defendant's crime. Pardon power in Pennsylvania comes from Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Pennsylvania's governor may, when satisfying other conditions, pardon a defendant while the defendant is still incarcerated and serving time. A pardon in those circumstances means that corrections officials release the defendant from serving any further time. Defendants thus often seek a pardon primarily to get out of prison, although pardons can have other good effects. The governor may also, when satisfying other conditions, pardon a defendant after the defendant has served out the full sentence and is no longer incarcerated but suffers other negative effects of the conviction. A pardon can mean significantly more than the defendant simply not having to serve out the defendant's full time.

Pardon's Effects

A pardon can have several positive effects beyond the primary effect of releasing the defendant from further incarceration for the pardoned crime. Pardon can be more than a get-out-of-jail-free card. A pardon can restore the defendant's right to seek and hold public office. A pardon can restore the defendant's right to vote in public elections. A pardon can restore the defendant's right to own, control, and possess firearms. A pardon can restore the defendant's right to serve on a jury. A pardon can also restore employment opportunities, educational opportunities, the opportunity to hold a professional or vocational license, and other opportunities for the defendant to satisfy significant interests. If you believe that a pardon may help you or a loved one, retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to help evaluate and pursue that pardon.

Sealing Pardoned Convictions

Pardons don't automatically remove the conviction from a defendant's criminal record. However, since the Pennsylvania legislature's recent passage of the Clean Slate initiative, pardons do seal the criminal record of the defendant's pardoned conviction in certain cases. See this list for convictions that don't qualify for Clean Slate sealing. Convictions that ordinarily do qualify for Clean Slate sealing include:

  • Second- or third-degree misdemeanors
  • Misdemeanors carrying a sentence of two years or less in prison
  • Summary convictions
  • Records of arrests and charges that did not result in convictions

Sealing the record generally means that employers, creditors, landlords, and other private persons and entities with whom the defendant hopes to deal cannot discover the conviction on a criminal records search. Check this Pennsylvania judiciary portal to see what the public can see, if anything, of your sealed record. Sealing the record, though, still allows law enforcement personnel, immigration personnel, and some other public officials to discover, review, and rely on the conviction for law enforcement purposes. The conviction is still there, but only limited public officials may discover it in a search to use for limited purposes. Sealing, though, is a big step in the right direction for most defendants. See more information here on the benefits and limits of sealing a pardoned conviction.

Act 5 Limited Access Convictions

Pennsylvania's legislature extends the convictions that qualify for limited access, under its Act 5 limited-access law, to certain convictions punishable by one or more years in prison. Act 5 allows defendants who complete their sentence and court-ordered obligations to have the court seal these additional convictions from public view if the defendant avoids arrest or prosecution for ten years. Act 5 crimes that a court may seal from public view include:

  • Simple assaults graded as second- and third-degree misdemeanors
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Harassment
  • Criminal coercion
  • Sale or transfer of firearms graded as second-degree misdemeanors
  • Corruption of minors graded as summary offenses
  • Carrying loaded weapons other than firearms
  • Sale or transfer of firearms

Expunging Pardoned Convictions

While sealing doesn't entirely remove a pardoned conviction, sealing can be a bridge toward expungement, which more effectively removes a conviction from any scrutiny. If expungement is available to a defendant who has not yet received a pardon, expungement may be the preferred option. Pardons can be much more difficult to obtain, whereas courts commonly grant expungements when the defendant's conviction qualifies. But in Pennsylvania, expungement of arrest and conviction records is available under the Criminal History and Records Information Act only under one of these conditions:

  • The judge or prosecutor dismissed or withdrew charges
  • The court dismissed charges after the defendant completed a diversion program
  • A judge or jury found the defendant not guilty
  • The defendant successfully completed the state's accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program
  • The conviction is for a summary offense, and the defendant has not suffered arrest for five years
  • The defendant is at least seventy years old and has not suffered arrest for ten years
  • The record involves a juvenile offense for which charges were dropped, six months have passed since discharge, five years have passed since adjudication, or the juvenile has reached the age of eighteen years

If you believe your offense qualifies for expungement, retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to assist you. Expungement requires several critical steps documenting, filing, and advocating for the expungement request. Expungement can relieve an ex-offender of long-term collateral consequences of conviction and restore the ex-offender's full life. But expungement isn't automatic. Make the best of your opportunity for expungement by retaining attorney Lento to assist you.

Pardon Process

The process to obtain a pardon involves an application process before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. Under Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and three Pennsylvania citizens whom the governor appoints comprise the Board of Pardons. Under Section 9, the Board of Pardons makes pardon recommendations to the governor. The governor has no authority to pardon a defendant unless and until the Board of Pardons has made a pardon recommendation. A strong and fully documented pardon application is critical to your success in obtaining a pardon. Expect the pardon process to follow these steps after your completed, and documented application reaches the Board of Pardons:

  • The Board of Pardons refers the application to the Board of Probation and Parole for a comprehensive investigation on the Board of Pardons' behalf, reviewing the applicant's criminal history and traffic violations, and interviewing the applicant and applicant's family members
  • The Board of Pardons reviews the Parole Board's investigation results, deciding whether to grant the applicant a public hearing permitting the applicant to present the case for pardon for fifteen minutes, and other witnesses to comment on the application
  • The Board of Pardons votes after the public hearing, with a majority of votes necessary to move the application forward to the governor, except in life sentence and death sentence cases where the vote must be unanimous

The governor may then approve or deny the pardon request, exercising discretion. The Board of Pardons' action and the Parole Board's investigation report may heavily influence the governor. Presentations at all levels are thus critical to a pardon application's success. Retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to assist you in obtaining the required pardon documentation, completing a proper application, preparing the applicant and witnesses for the hearing, and providing the governor's office with further information and advocacy as permitted. Pardon can be a great outcome, but pardons take skill and work.

Pardon Factors

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons sets no minimum requirements for pardons. Instead, it relies on a case-by-case evaluation. The Board does nonetheless acknowledge that it considers several factors when recommending that the governor grant or deny a pardon application. Those factors include:

  • The number and seriousness of the crimes for which the defendant seeks pardon
  • How much time has elapsed since the crime or crimes, sufficient to show rehabilitation
  • Whether the defendant committed any other crimes or criminal behavior since the conviction
  • Whether the defendant has completed all court-imposed requirements such as payment of fines and costs and conditions of probation or parole
  • Positive changes the applicant has made in the applicant's life since committing the crime, including changes in career, education, and family circumstances, and community or volunteer service
  • The applicant's need for pardon, such as to obtain employment, support dependents, care for dependents, or receive medical treatment
  • Pardon's impact on the victim, whom the board notifies and who may present witnesses on the victim's behalf

Defendants seeking pardon greatly benefit from the representation of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney to make a case on these factors. Take alone the last factor of victim impact. A skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to contact victims or their next of kin in a manner that encourages them to recognize the defendant's rehabilitation. A skilled pardon attorney may get letters from those victims or next of kin supporting the pardon application or even gain victim representation at the pardon hearing, advocating for the defendant's case. Skilled pardon attorney representation can also help with documentation and presentation of the other factors. If you or someone you love seeks a pardon, retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to assist in making a case based on the pardon factors.


Commutation reduces a prison sentence, cutting it shorter than the court imposed. For instance, commutation may excuse the defendant who has served ten of the fifteen years imposed for a certain criminal conviction. Although the defendant only served ten years, leaving five years remaining on the sentence, commutation would end the sentence anyway with the five years unserved. Commutation can be much better than reprieve because commutation ends the sentence while reprieve only delays it. Because Pennsylvania life sentences are without parole, commutation is a common request for those serving life sentences. Commutation is ordinarily the only way for the life sentence prisoner to get out of prison alive.

Commutation Power

Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution grants Pennsylvania's governor the power to commute sentences. The governor may only exercise that power, though, if the Board of Pardons recommends commutation. As in the case of pardons, the Board of Pardons recommends by majority vote except in the case of life sentences or capital sentences, which instead require unanimous Board recommendation. If you or a loved one need or deserve a commuted sentence, you should expect to make a strong showing to the Board of Pardons, one that will also carry the day with the governor.

Commutation Process

As in the case of pardons, defendants must direct commutation applications to the Board of Pardons. The Board of Pardons refers commutation applications to the Board of Probation and Parole for investigation. The Parole Board reports back to the Board of Pardons, which may then hold a commutation-of-sentence hearing. The defendant may speak at the hearing, and the victim, victim's next of kin, and other witnesses may submit writings or also speak at the hearing.

Commutation Factors

Just as it does for pardons, the Board of Pardons considers several factors when recommending that the governor grant or deny an application for commutation of a sentence. Those factors include:

  • Whether the applicant has court appeals still pending or other legal remedies available, the results of which the Board should better await
  • Whether the applicant is eligible for parole or will soon be eligible, in which instance the Board may treat parole as the preferred avenue
  • Whether the applicant has served an appropriate period of incarceration based on the circumstances of the offense
  • Whether the applicant has maintained an appropriate conduct record as to the number of serious or minor misconduct
  • Whether the applicant has shown a successful work record and record of self-improvement program participation
  • The offense's victim impact, with the Board notifying victims or next of kin for written comment or oral presentation at the hearing

If you or a loved one need commutation, or one of the other clemency forms, pardon or reprieve, retain premier Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm for skilled, experienced, aggressive, and effective representation. Clemency applications always involve substantial interests, often freedom versus imprisonment but also even life versus death. Get the help you need for the best opportunity for clemency. Trust an attorney with the commitment, compassion, and demeanor to get results. Call 888-535-3686 or go online now.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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