Pardon, Clemency, Reprieve

Individuals with criminal convictions on their record in Pennsylvania may find it hard to live honest, productive lives. To remedy the effects a criminal history can have on an individual, the Commonwealth has several clemency, rights restoration, and record sealing options for those wishing for a fresh start.

For questions about how to seal your record, get a pardon, or other similar matters, you should always contact a qualified Pennsylvania defense attorney to discuss the particular details of your situation.

What Is Clemency in Pennsylvania?

Clemency is a general term referring to the forgiveness of a crime or lessening of a sentence. In Pennsylvania, there are three main types of clemency:

  • Pardon
  • Reprieve
  • Commutation of sentence

Many states and the federal government offer forms of clemency. Although an act of clemency may lessen a penalty, it does not overrule or overturn a conviction. Typically, removing a conviction from a criminal record requires expungement. In Pennsylvania, it's only possible to expunge some crimes by receiving a pardon first.

Why does Pennsylvania offer clemency?

A criminal record may follow you around for the rest of your life. After you've served your sentence with the criminal justice system, there are still repercussions on your daily life. It may be difficult to find employment, housing, or access government benefits. Even if you turn your life around and have no further run-ins with law enforcement, an old conviction on your record can prevent you from enjoying the rights that those without a record are entitled to.

To encourage people to make fresh starts and not have past crimes follow them around, the federal and many state governments offer forms of forgiveness, or clemency. Pennsylvania offers clemency options as a way to ease the burden having a criminal record imposes on people.

What Is a Pardon?

A pardon is an official forgiveness of a crime by the governor of Pennsylvania. A pardon reinstates some rights you lost when you were convicted of a crime, such as the right to sit on a jury, possess firearms, or run for office. Pardons may also improve the chances that a potential employer cannot see your past crimes.

Does a pardon erase your crime?

A pardon reinstates your rights but does not wipe your criminal record clean. You need an expungement to get a clean record. Under new legislation passed in 2020 as part of Pennsylvania's Clean Slate initiative, pardoned crimes are automatically sealed. Sealing crimes does not make them completely go away, but it does make it more difficult for employers, landlords, schools, licensing boards, and members of the general public to see. Law enforcement agencies can still see and access sealed records, however.

How do you obtain a pardon?

You must apply for a pardon with the Board of Pardons. The process goes through the following steps:

  1. You submit an application. It could take several months for you to gather the documents you need.
  2. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole receives your application and conducts an investigation on behalf of the Board of Pardons. The investigation is comprehensive, covering your entire criminal history and traffic violations. There are also interviews with you and your family members.
  3. The Board of Pardons reviews the results of the investigations and decides to grant you a hearing or not. You may speak and defend your case for 15 minutes at the hearing.
  4. After the public hearing ends, the board votes. You need a majority to vote for approval of your application for it to move forward. If it's a life or death sentence case, the vote must be unanimous.
  5. If the Board votes in favor of your application, it will forward it to the governor, officially recommending your application for approval. The governor may then approve or deny the request for pardon.

Keep in mind that for a pardon or commutation, you must go through an application process with the Board of Pardons. The governor does not have the authority to grant pardons or commutations without the official recommendation of the Board of Pardons. For reprieves, the governor does not need a recommendation from the board or any entity.

What does the Board of Pardons consider in each case?

There are no official eligibility requirements for requesting a pardon, but the board does tend to consider general factors when reviewing applications and investigations related to pardons and commutations.

Factors considered in pardon applications

  • How much time has it been since the applicant was convicted of the crime?
    Has the applicant fulfilled all court requirements?
  • Has the applicant made positive life changes or improvements?
  • Applicant should have a specific need for clemency, not a general request such as “for employment reasons”
  • How will the potential pardon impact the victim?

Which crimes can be pardoned?

There are no eligibility requirements for requesting a pardon. Generally, people request pardons for crimes that aren't eligible for expungement.

Conditions for expungement in Pennsylvania

  • You are 70 years old and have not had an arrest or prosecution for 10 years following final release from confinement or supervision
  • Those who have been dead for three years
  • You've been convicted of a summary offense and have not been arrested or prosecuted for five years following the offense
  • You were convicted with a summary offense for underage drinking and are over 21 at the time you're asking for an expungement
  • You successfully completed the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program
  • You have a juvenile offense and either 1) the charges were dropped, 2) six months have passed since discharge from a consent decree or supervision, 3) five years have passed since your adjudication, or 4) you reach 18 years of age

Felonies and some misdemeanors are not eligible for expungement in Pennsylvania. If you want these crimes permanently removed from your record, you must apply for a pardon from the governor first. Once a crime is pardoned, it becomes expungable.

What's the Clean Slate Law?

In the last few years, Pennsylvania has been passing new laws as part of the Clean Slate program. The purpose of Clean Slate is to lessen the burden that convicted individuals face in rebuilding a productive life after their conviction or sentence. Under previous Pennsylvania laws, obtaining employment or housing was difficult if you had a criminal record. Clean Slate, Act 5 limited access, and new expungement rules impose fewer restrictions on these individuals.

Under Clean Slate, some individuals with a criminal history may have their records automatically shielded from public view after completing court-ordered obligations for 10 years.

Offenses eligible for Clean Slate record sealing in Pennsylvania

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

Some offenses are not eligible for the Clean Slate program, such as crimes involving danger to persons, crimes against families, firearm offenses, criminal homicide, assault, human trafficking, and sexual offenses. Felonies are not eligible for Clean Slate, either. The Pennsylvania Courts have a full list of offenses not eligible for Clean Slate.

What Is Act 5 Limited Access in Pennsylvania?

Act 5 limited access allows individuals who have served their punishment and completed court-ordered obligations to petition the court to seal their record from public view. Individuals must remain free of arrest or prosecution for 10 years for offenses carrying one or more years in prison. Act 5 limited access is similar to Clean Slate, but there are few key differences. First, Clean Slate is automatic, whereas Act 5 requires filing a petition. There are also some offenses that are eligible for Act 5 that are not eligible for Clean Slate, including:

  • Simple assaults that are second- or third-degree misdemeanors
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Harassment
  • Criminal coercion
  • Second-degree misdemeanor of sale or transfer of firearms
  • Summary offense of corruption of minors
  • Carrying loaded weapons other than firearms
  • Sale or transfer of firearms

This list is not comprehensive. If you have questions about Clean Slate, Act 5 limited access, pardons, expungement, and sealing your records, you should contact a qualified defense attorney to discuss your specific situation.

What Is a Reprieve?

A reprieve is an act to postpone incarceration. Under Section 9 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, the governor has the power to grant reprieves in all criminal cases except impeachment. The governor does not need permission, approval, or recommendation from the Board of Pardons or another government entity to grant reprieves. Reprieve power is usually an executive power, reserved only for state governors and the U.S. president.

In Pennsylvania, one of the main uses of reprieve has been preventing a convicted person from receiving the death penalty. By postponing incarceration, a reprieve gives the defendant more time to apply for a pardon or commutation. For this reason, a reprieve is also known as a “stay of execution.” Sometimes, inmates miss a deadline or run out of other appeal options, so they can ask for a reprieve to pause their sentence and look for a qualified defense attorney to help with their appeal.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people worried about the virus spreading in Pennsylvania's incarceration facilities, the governor used the reprieve power to help reduce the Commonwealth's prison population as well.

The governor does not have to cite a reason for granting a reprieve, but some typical reasons for granting one may include:

  • An appeal filed late
  • There was an error in the trial
  • There were extenuating personal circumstances
  • The sentence was unfairly harsh

Does a reprieve erase your crime?

A reprieve does not erase your crime or overturn your conviction. It is a temporary postponement of your incarceration. It's possible that when the term of the governor who pardoned you is over, your reprieve will end—especially if the governor of Pennsylvania used the reprieve power to politically object to capital punishment. To completely erase your crime, you need an expungement.

How does a reprieve differ from a pardon?

Many people confuse reprieves with pardons, as they are both forms of clemency and both granted by the governor. These actions are not the same, however. To get a pardon, you usually have to acknowledge your guilt. A pardon is apologizing to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and asking for a second chance. To get a reprieve, on the other hand, you do not have to acknowledge your guilt. On the contrary, most people ask for a reprieve because they want more time to prove their innocence.

What is a Commutation?

A commutation is a reduction of a prison sentence for a criminal conviction. Commutations differ from reprieves because reprieves stall a sentence, whereas commutations shorten them. The governor may approve a commutation for someone if they've exhibited good behavior or proven that they've rehabilitated since the commission of their crime. An example would be reducing a life sentence to a sentence for a certain number of years. In Pennsylvania, incarcerated individuals serving life sentences are not eligible for parole, so submitting a commutation application to the Board of Pardons is their only means of release.

How do you get a commutation?

To get a commutation, you must submit an official written petition to the Board of Pardons. Your application will go through a similar process as a pardon. The Board of Probation and Parole conducts an investigation, then presents findings to the Board of Pardons. The Board of Pardons reviews and the application and findings and decides whether to hold a hearing. After the hearing, the board will vote to determine a recommendation for a commutation.

A Pennsylvania Defense Attorney

Pennsylvania's criminal justice system can be difficult to navigate when you're seeking clemency, expungement, or a similar action for your criminal record. An experienced defense attorney will understand all the options available and will be able to advise you.

Joseph D. Lento of Lento Law Firm has experience fighting for criminal defendants in Pennsylvania and helping clients from across Pennsylvania and the nation address and clear past criminal records. If you have questions about your criminal history, call the Firm today at 888.535.3686.

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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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