Pardons in Pennsylvania: Frequently Asked Questions

Pardons in Pennsylvania: Frequently Asked Questions

When a court convicts you of a crime, the consequences and your criminal record can follow you for life. Any felony or serious misdemeanor will show up on criminal background checks and can prevent you from pursuing certain professions, obtaining a loan, or even renting or buying a home. It can also affect a child custody case, admission to college, and your immigration status. If you've served your sentence and lived an unblemished life since then, a pardon may be an option for you.

A pardon is an act of forgiveness or clemency for a crime that restores the convicted person's rights as if they had never committed the crime. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons makes recommendations to the governor regarding who should receive a pardon, but the governor has the final say. The process is long, and the result isn't guaranteed. But for those who successfully obtain a pardon, rights will be fully restored.

  1. What is a governor's pardon?
  2. What does a governor's pardon do?
  3. Will my record be cleared if I receive a pardon?
  4. What is a commutation?
  5. How is a commutation different from a pardon?
  6. What is clemency?
  7. What is a reprieve?
  8. How is parole different from a pardon?
  9. Can I vote if I receive a pardon?
  10. What are the advantages if I obtain a pardon?
  11. How do I get a pardon in Pennsylvania?
  12. What do I need to include in the pardon application?
  13. What happens during the background investigation?
  14. Will I automatically get a hearing before the Board of Pardons?
  15. Who will the Board of Pardons notify before my hearing?
  16. What happens during a Board of Pardons hearing?
  17. Who makes pardon decisions, and how?
  18. What is the Board of Pardons?
  19. Who is on the Board of Pardons?
  20. Can the governor overrule the Board of Pardons?
  21. Who is eligible for a pardon in Pennsylvania?
  22. Can I find the pardon application online?
  23. What is on the Pennsylvania pardon application?
  24. What additional information should I include in my pardon application?
  25. How long does a pardon take in Pennsylvania?
  26. Can I speed up the pardon process?
  27. Do I need an attorney for a pardon?
  28. Can I get a pardon for a federal conviction?
  29. Is my Pennsylvania pardon application public record?
  30. Should I say I'm guilty to get a pardon?
  31. What are the main reasons for a pardon denial?
  32. What happens after my pardon?
  33. How much does a pardon application cost in Pennsylvania?
  34. Do I need to disclose my pardon on a job application?
  35. Will my pardon show up on a background check?
  36. Will a pardon relieve me of the requirement to register?
  37. Will my pardon help my immigration case?
  38. Can I own a gun after receiving a pardon?
  39. Can I serve on a jury after getting a pardon?

What is a governor's pardon?

A governor's pardon is forgiveness for a crime that restores a convicted person's rights. The Pennsylvania constitution gives the power to grant pardons to the executive branch and the governor:

In all criminal cases except impeachment the Governor shall have power to remit fines and forfeitures, to grant reprieves, commutation of sentences and pardons; but no pardon shall be granted, nor sentence commuted, except on the recommendation in writing of a majority of the Board of Pardons, and, in the case of a sentence of death or life imprisonment, on the unanimous recommendation in writing of the Board of Pardons, after full hearing in open session, upon due public notice. The recommendation, with the reasons therefor at length, shall be delivered to the Governor and a copy thereof shall be kept on file in the office of the Lieutenant Governor in a docket kept for that purpose.

See Penn. Const. Art. IV, §9(a) (1997).

A pardon involves:

    • The application;
    • A full hearing;
    • Notice to the public;
    • The recommendation of the Board of Pardons; and
    • The governor's final decision.

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What does a governor's pardon do?

A pardon removes any legal disability that restricted a person's right from a criminal conviction. Only incarcerated felons lose their right to vote in Pennsylvania. Still, a pardon also restores a person's right to sit on a jury, own and purchase firearms, hold public office, serve in the military, and travel overseas.

In Pennsylvania, convicted felons lose:

A convicted felon may also:

  • Lose professional licensure for ten years
  • Lose eligibility for specific employment jobs for ten years, including education and nursing positions; see 24 P.S. § 1-111
  • Need to register under “Megan's Law” as a sex offender; see 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 9791, 9799 et seq. (2017)
  • Be required to provide DNA following a felony sex offense conviction or other specified crimes. See 44 Pa. C.S.A. § 2316.

A pardon can restore all of these rights, making it easier for you to obtain and hold a job, get a loan, and rent or buy a home.

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Will my record be cleared if I receive a pardon?

A pardon does not remove, expunge, or clear a conviction from your record. However, a pardon does give you the ability to have your criminal record expunged. The only way to clear a criminal record is to file a petition to have the record expunged in the court where you were criminally convicted.

To have your record expunged in Pennsylvania, you must:

  • Submit form SP-4170 to the central repository with a check or money order for the fee made out to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. You should include a copy of your photo ID and a legal affidavit or letter of representation.
  • Once you receive a copy of your full arrest record back from the central repository, you can contact the clerk of court in the county from your arrest and conviction for your county's procedure for expungement applications.
  • After the Pennsylvania State Police receive a court order signed by a judge for expungement from the clerk of court in the county of your arrest, they will expunge your record.

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What is a commutation?

A commutation substitutes a lesser prison sentence for one that is more severe. According to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons:

[A] commutation is for the reduction of a prison or parole sentence currently being served by an applicant. Approximately 15 percent of the clemency applications the Board receives are for commutation of sentences. Inmates serving life sentences must apply for commutation of their life sentence as their only means of release since there is no such thing as parole for lifers in Pennsylvania. Inmates serving indeterminate sentences also apply for commutation of their minimum and/or maximum sentence, but the Board generally finds parole to be the more appropriate avenue for their release.

The Board of Pardons can recommend that the governor reduce a sentence of a convicted individual.

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How is a commutation different from a pardon?

A commutation is different from a pardon because it does not restore any convicted person's rights under the law. Commutation simply allows for a lesser sentence than the one imposed by a court of law. The Board of Pardons makes both commutation and pardon recommendations in Pennsylvania. The governor is, however, the ultimate decision-maker.

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What is clemency?

Clemency is a show of mercy or leniency to a convicted criminal based on special circumstances. The governor's ability to grant clemency in Pennsylvania comes from the state constitution:

The Governor shall have power to remit fines and forfeitures, to grant reprieves, commutation of sentences and pardons; but no pardon shall be granted, nor sentence commuted, except on the recommendation in writing of a majority of the Board of Pardons, and, in the case of a sentence of death or life imprisonment, on the unanimous recommendation in writing of the Board of Pardons, after full hearing in open session, upon due public notice.

Pa. Const. Art. IV, § 9.

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons makes clemency recommendations to the governor. The governor makes the final determination in clemency matters in the state. Clemency applications with the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons generally fall into one of two categories:

  • Pardon applications: A pardon application essentially asks that the Board of Pardons set aside or forgive a convicted person's crime. A pardon restores all of a person's rights. These rights include the right to own and carry a gun, the right to vote, the right to sit on a jury, and more.
  • Commutation applications: A commutation application asks that the Board of Pardons reduce a sentence under special circumstances. The board might recommend a sentence's commutation if the sentence was overly harsh or if some injustice occurred during the trial or sentencing.

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What is a reprieve?

A reprieve is another form of clemency under the purview of Pennsylvania's governor. A reprieve typically delays the imposition of a sentence following a conviction. A convicted person may use a reprieve to delay sentencing while trying to overturn a conviction.

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How is parole different from a pardon?

The Pennsylvania legislature created the Parole Board through the Parole Act of 1941, which states, “The parole system provides several benefits to the criminal justice system, including the provision of adequate supervision of the offender while protecting the public, the opportunity for the offender to become a useful member of society and the diversion of appropriate offenders from prison.”

In Pennsylvania, there is no right to parole or early release from prison. All prisoners become eligible for parole when they serve their minimum sentence. In Pennsylvania, when a judge issues a sentence, they will issue a minimum and maximum length of prison time. The Parole Board determines whether a convicted person deserves a release between their minimum and maximum sentences. When the board releases someone on parole, their sentence is still in place. Parole is a conditional release of a prisoner, and the paroled individual may be on supervised probation until reaching the maximum length of their sentence.

On the other hand, a pardon forgives the crime and the sentence, restoring an individual's rights as if they had never committed a crime. A pardoned individual regains all of their rights to participate in society fully. A paroled individual does not.

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Can I vote if I receive a pardon?

In Pennsylvania, incarcerated felons cannot vote. If you are released at least 30 days before the next election, you can vote. So, yes, of course, you can vote if you receive a pardon. But in Pennsylvania, the law restores your voting rights as soon as you leave prison.

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What are the advantages if I obtain a pardon?

In Pennsylvania, convicted felons lose certain rights that most people have under the law. A convicted felon loses:

A convicted felon may also:

  • Lose professional licensure for ten years
  • Lose eligibility for certain employment for ten years, including education and nursing positions; see 24 P.S. § 1-111
  • Need to register under “Megan's Law”; see 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 9791, 9799 et seq. (2017)
  • Be required to provide DNA following a felony sex offense conviction or other specified crimes. See 44 Pa. C.S.A. § 2316.

A pardon can restore all of these rights, placing you as if no court had ever convicted you.

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How do I get a pardon in Pennsylvania?

The pardon procedure in Pennsylvania is a multi-step process. Any person with a criminal conviction in a Pennsylvania state court can apply for a pardon. While there is no set waiting period for applying for a pardon, the Board of Pardons is more likely to grant pardons to crimes that happened a long time ago. If the board rejects your application for a pardon, you must wait 12 months to apply again.

The pardon process includes:

  • The Application
  • Background Investigation
  • Notice to Interested Parties
  • Board of Pardons Hearing
  • Board of Pardons Recommendation
  • Governor's Decision

The application requires that you submit a detailed list of documents from your criminal case and a list of your prior crimes and traffic offenses. During your hearing, you will have 15 minutes to present your case, explain why you seek clemency, present any character witnesses, and answer questions. At the conclusion, the Board of Pardons will vote to determine whether they will recommend the pardon to the governor. The governor will then make the final decision.

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What do I need to include in the pardon application?

The application is the first step in the pardon process. You can download an application online from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. However, the application itself requires advanced planning and retrieval and submission of a wide range of documents. The application won't be complete without all of these steps, including:

  • Obtaining court documents: You must collect the official court documents for your case, including the criminal complaint, affidavit of probable cause, criminal information/indictment, final plea or verdict, sentencing order, and proof of payment of financial obligations.
  • Indicate the type of clemency sought
  • Application information, including any supplemental pages
  • Convictions for which you are requesting clemency: This should include the date of the incidents, the offense tracking number, and detailed facts of the incident, including how you were involved.
  • Additional criminal information and driver history: You must detail your complete criminal history, including juvenile charges, adjudications of delinquency and consent decrees, adult charges not included in your clemency request, and traffic citations from outside Pennsylvania.
  • Optional personal statement: This statement may include details of how your life has changed since your last arrest, why you seek clemency, why you think you are a good candidate, and information that supports your request.
  • Signature

You don't need to list criminal history information for charges expunged by the state. You can also include copies certificates, diplomas, recommendation letters, and any supporting documents. You should keep a complete copy of everything submitted to the Board of Pardons.

You mail your application and supporting documents to:

Pennsylvania Board of Pardons

333 Market Street, 15th Floor

Harrisburg, PA 17126

If information is missing from your application, the Board of Pardons will identify the missing data. The board won't consider your application “filed” until you provide all of the requested missing information.

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What happens during the background investigation?

After you have filed your application, the Board of Pardons will notify the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and assign an agent to the case. The agent will review your application and the facts surrounding your criminal case and request a meeting with you.

The agent will typically interview you at home to determine whether you are now a contributing member of society. The agent will interview your household members, whether family members or roommates, to ask about your conduct. The agent may also ask you for additional documentation based on your application, the interview, or questions about your case. You must provide all of the requested information, or the agent will withdraw your application before it proceeds to the Board of Pardons for review.

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Will I automatically get a hearing before the Board of Pardons?

Before your application can proceed to a hearing before the Board of Pardons, two out of five of the board members must vote in favor of a hearing. Three out of five must vote in favor of a hearing if you are incarcerated and seeking clemency.

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Who will the Board of Pardons notify before my hearing?

If the board grants a hearing, they will notify the following parties:

  • Applicant and their representative or lawyer
  • Board of Probation and Parole
  • The District Attorney of the county where you were convicted
  • The President Judge of the county where you were convicted
  • Victims and survivors
  • The newspaper of record in the county where you were convicted
  • The Department of Corrections for incarcerated people seeking clemency

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What happens during a Board of Pardons hearing?

One all parties receive notifications, and the board schedules the hearing, you will have 15 minutes to present your case before the Board of Pardons and answer their questions. The hearing is your chance to present character witnesses, explain your conviction's circumstances, and show how you've lived your life since serving your sentence. The hearing will proceed with:

  • The applicant's presentation
  • Witnesses speaking in support of clemency
  • Witnesses speaking against clemency

Three of the five members must vote for a pardon for the board to forward your application to the governor. While you are not required to have an attorney help you present your case, this is your only chance to put forward your best presentation. An experienced pardon attorney can ensure that you are well prepared and have the best chance of success.

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Who makes pardon decisions, and how?

The Board of Pardons consists of five members, including the Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, a corrections expert, a psychiatrist, and a victims' rights advocate. The governor appoints the last three members of the board. After hearing the applicant's presentation and all witness testimony, the board will vote to determine whether they grant the pardon. The Board of Pardons will generally consider:

  • Whether the crime was violent or non-violent;
  • The circumstances that led to the applicant committing the crime;
  • Whether the applicant takes responsibility for the crime;
  • How much time has passed;
  • The hardship created by the applicant's criminal history, including educational, licensing, clearances, and occupation; and
  • How the applicant has contributed to society since the conviction.

After voting, the Board of Pardons will make a recommendation to the Pennsylvania Governor. At least three of the five board members must vote in favor of your pardon application to send their recommendation for a pardon to the governor. The governor makes the final pardon determination.

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What is the Board of Pardons?

The Board of Pardons exists to make recommendations to Pennsylvania's governor regarding pardons, commutation of sentences, reprieves, and executive clemency. The board reviews criminal matters, except impeachment, but does not determine guilt or innocence. The Pennsylvania judicial system retains that power. However, in cases where a legal technicality exists, such as the introduction of improper hearsay evidence, illegal search and seizure, or an illegal confession, the Board of Pardons has a legal duty to review and resolve such matters and adjust a sentence accordingly.

In cases reviewed by the board, an individual has already been found guilty in a court of law. The Board of Pardons simply reviews a case to determine if they should recommend mercy due to special circumstances. The board can only recommend that the governor grant a pardon or reduce a sentence.

While the governor is not bound to grant clemency if recommended by the Board of Pardons, the governor may not grant clemency without the board's recommendation. Ultimately, the governor retains independent judgment but typically follows the Board of Pardons' recommendations in all clemency matters.

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Who is on the Board of Pardons?

Pennsylvania's constitution determines the makeup of the Board of Pardons. The board consists of the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, and three members appointed by the governor.

The Board of Pardons shall consist of the Lieutenant Governor who shall be chairman, the Attorney General and three members appointed by the Governor with the consent of a majority of the members elected to the Senate for terms of six years. The three members appointed by the Governor shall be residents of Pennsylvania. One shall be a crime victim, one a corrections expert and the third a doctor of medicine, psychiatrist or psychologist. The board shall keep records of its actions, which shall at all times be open for public inspection.

See Pa. Const. Art. IV, § 9(b) (1997).

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Can the governor overrule the Board of Pardons?

The governor does not have to grant a pardon solely because the Board of Pardons recommends one. The governor can still deny a pardon application. However, if the board doesn't recommend a pardon, the application won't proceed to the governor. In other words, the governor cannot go around the Board of Pardons and grant a pardon without their recommendation.

If the governor grants a pardon, the pardon may still include conditions. If the pardoned individual doesn't meet the requirements, it can result in a reinstitution of the original criminal sentence. Once the governor confers the pardon, you can apply for expungement of your criminal record. If the governor denies your pardon, you must wait 12 months before applying again.

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Who is eligible for a pardon in Pennsylvania?

Anyone convicted of a crime in Pennsylvania and has completed their sentence, including meeting all fines and financial obligations, can apply for a pardon. You are most likely to succeed if you were convicted of only one minor crime at least five years ago, or a more serious crime at least ten years ago. Typically, you'll need to show that you've lived a crime-free life since completing your sentence to obtain a pardon.

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Can I find the pardon application online?

You can download an online copy of the application on the Board of Pardons' website.

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What is on the Pennsylvania pardon application?

The application will ask you for basic information about you, your representative, and contact information. The application also asks for:

  1. The type of clemency sought
  2. Convictions for which you are requesting clemency: This should include the date of the incidents, the offense tracking number, and detailed facts of the incident. The facts about the incident should describe how you were involved and include:
    • Who was involved?
    • What did you do?
    • When did you do it?
    • Where did you do it?
    • Why did you do it?
  1. Additional criminal information and driver history: You must detail your complete criminal history, including juvenile charges, adjudications of delinquency and consent decrees, adult charges not included in your clemency request, and traffic citations from outside Pennsylvania.
  2. Optional personal statement: This statement may include details of how your life has changed since your last arrest, why you seek clemency, why you think you are a good candidate, and information that supports your request.
  3. Signature

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What additional information should I include in my pardon application?

When you mail in your signed and completed application, you must include copies of documents from your criminal conviction, including the:

  • Criminal complaint,
  • Affidavit of probable cause,
  • Criminal information/indictment,
  • Final plea or verdict,
  • Sentencing order, and
  • Proof of payment of financial obligations.

If you have an outstanding balance, you need to include a copy of your balance and a receipt showing your last payment. You can also include any certificates or diplomas you've earned, letters of recommendation, and any additional supporting documents for claims made in your application.

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How long does a pardon take in Pennsylvania?

The Pennsylvania pardon process is lengthy and can take years. Ordering your case documents from the court can take up to six months. You need those documents before you can even begin the application process. You will also need to gather your driving record, sentencing documents, letters of reference, affidavits, etc. All of this can take months.

Once you've submitted your application and all of the required documents, the Board of Pardons can still take up to three years to review your application and grant a hearing. If the Board of Pardons recommends you receive a pardon, your application still has to go to the Pennsylvania Governor, which can also take quite some time.

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Can I speed up the pardon process?

Typically, it is not possible to speed up the Pennsylvania parole process. However, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recently established an expedited pardon review system for people convicted of non-violent, marijuana-specific crimes.

The marijuana-related expedited review includes crimes such as:

  • Possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use;
  • Possession of a small amount of marijuana with the intent to distribute;
  • Distribution of a small amount of marijuana but not for sale;
  • Paraphernalia related offenses;
  • Criminal conspiracy related to an underlying marijuana offense;
  • Marijuana-related DUI's for medical marijuana cardholders in the Pennsylvania;
  • Any felony conviction for possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance that is marijuana; and
  • Any marijuana-specific conviction that the Secretary of the Board of Pardons deems appropriate.

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Do I need an attorney for a pardon?

You do not need an attorney for a pardon. However, the Pennsylvania pardon process is long and bureaucratic. If you do not submit all of the correct information in your application or if you fail to respond to a request for more information or documentation, the state could dismiss your application before it even reaches the Board of Pardons.

If your case makes it to a hearing of the Board of Pardons, you will only have 15 minutes to present your case, explain your conviction's circumstances, how your life has changed, introduce character witnesses, and answer questions. If the board denies your application, you will need to wait 12 months to apply again. An attorney experienced in Pennsylvania pardons is your best chance to ensure that your application is robust, you are prepared for the hearing, and you present your best case.

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Can I get a pardon for a federal conviction?

The President of the U.S. grants federal pardons. The federal pardon process is separate from the pardon process for Pennsylvania state crimes. The governor of Pennsylvania cannot grant a pardon for a federal crime, and the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons will not review federal pardon applications.

To begin the pardon process for a federal conviction, you will need to submit a petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. Under the DOJ's guidelines for executive clemency, you must wait five years after your release for confinement before applying. See 28 C.F.R. §§ 1.1 et seq. Neither the DOJ nor the White House will hold a hearing regarding a federal pardon application. Instead, the power to grant pardons is vested in the President of the United States alone. However, the President cannot grant pardons for convictions of state crimes in Pennsylvania. Presidential pardons are rare.

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Is my Pennsylvania pardon application public record?

Yes, your application will be a public record. You should be prepared for a lengthy application process, followed by a public hearing. Your pardon application will become part of the public record. Even if the state later expunges your criminal record, your pardon application will remain part of the public record.

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Should I say I'm guilty to get a pardon?

In reviewing your applications, the Board of Pardons will consider whether you've accepted responsibility for your crime. It is unlikely that they will seriously consider pleas that someone wrongfully accused you of a crime.

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What are the main reasons for a pardon denial?

If the Board of Pardons denies a pardon application, you may never really know why. Typically, however, the Board of Pardons considers the following factors in making their determination:

  • The seriousness and number of the crimes committed;
  • The length of time that has elapsed since the commission of the crime;
  • The presence of a specific need for a pardon, such as a particular job;
  • Completion of all court requirements, including payment of all fines; and
  • The impact of your crime on the victims of the offense.

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What happens after my pardon?

If the governor grants your pardon, you can then apply to expunge your criminal record. To have your record expunged, you will first need to request a copy of your arrest record. Once you receive a copy of your full arrest record back from the central repository, you can contact the clerk of court in the county from your arrest and conviction for your county's procedure for expungement applications. After the Pennsylvania State Police receive a court order signed by a judge for expungement from the court clerk in the county of your arrest, they will expunge your record.

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How much does a pardon application cost in Pennsylvania?

A pardon application costs $25 in Pennsylvania. However, you may face additional costs for documents you must include with your application, including your court documents, driving record, affidavits, sentencing documents, and any other official supporting documentation you supply. These costs vary widely based on the volume of court documentation.

You can request a fee waiver from the Board of Pardons. However, because the board will consider your financial situation as part of its review of your case, you should make every effort to pay the fees.

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Do I need to disclose my pardon on a job application?

You do not have to disclose a conviction for which you received a pardon on a job application. Remember that a pardon does not automatically remove your criminal record. After you receive a pardon, you should apply to expunge your record. Once the state police expunge your record, your criminal conviction should no longer appear on background checks.

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Will my pardon show up on a background check?

Your pardon will not show up on a routine background check or criminal background check. However, your criminal conviction will remain on your record, and show up in a background check, unless you have your record expunged.

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Will a pardon relieve me of the requirement to register?

If you receive a pardon for an offense that requires you to register as a sex offender, it does remove the requirement to register.

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Will my pardon help my immigration case?

A criminal conviction can be a severe impediment to an immigration case in the U.S. Unfortunately, even small crimes such as petty theft can affect your immigration application and make you inadmissible. Even if you are already a lawful permanent resident, a criminal conviction can make you deportable. Because each case is so unique, it's hard to say that a pardon will help definitively. If a court convicted you of a crime in Pennsylvania and you are applying for admission to the U.S. or are here as a legal permanent resident, you should consult an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

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Can I own a gun after receiving a pardon?

Obtaining a pardon is the first step to renewing your right to own or carry a firearm in Pennsylvania. After you are pardoned, you can apply to the Court of Common Pleas to request that the court restore your right to own a firearm. See 18 Pa. C.S.A. §6105 (2019). The court will typically restore your rights as long as your pardon does not expressly state that your gun rights are still restricted.

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Can I serve on a jury after getting a pardon?

Because the constitution enshrines our right to a jury trial, serving on juries is a significant civic duty for all Americans. In Pennsylvania, you can serve on a jury if you:

  • Can read, write, and speak English;
  • Haven't been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison;
  • Can physically and mentally perform the obligations of a juror;
  • Are a U.S. citizen at the time the court summons you;
  • Are a resident of the county where the court summons you;
  • Are at least 18 years of age.

A pardon will restore your right to serve on a jury if you meet all of the other jury service requirements.

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