Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Board of Pardons Secretary Celeste Trusty at a press conference Monday unveiled a modernization project to overhaul how people in Pennsylvania apply for clemency, making it easier to ask for pardons or request a reduction in prison sentence.
The three-year project is the system’s first major update since the advent of computers, and it comes during a time when the Board, chaired by Fetterman, is its most active in decades.
The board oversees two forms of clemency: pardons for people who are not incarcerated and sentence commutations, meaning sentence reductions, for people who are in prison and believe they are reformed and have been over-sentenced.
Fetterman applauded Governor Tom Wolf for a shift in thinking in Pennsylvania that renews the state’s commitment to clemency.
“It hasn’t always been a priority to offer second chances to people who’ve been written off and thrown away by society,” Fetterman said. “However, helping disenfranchised people turn their lives around is not just a fiscally sound thing to do. Mercy is at the core of so many religions because it also happens to be the right thing to do.”
To date, Governor Wolf has pardoned more than 1,906 people, including 256 people who filed expedited applications for minor marijuana-related offenses.
The governor has also commuted 45 life sentences, over six times more than the previous four governors combined.
Governor Wolf on Friday proclaimed April as Second Chance Month, saying a criminal record shouldn’t mean a lifetime of exclusion from building a better life for themselves or their families.
“Helping people with criminal records become productive members of society benefits both their families and their communities,” Governor Wolf said. “We know that when you leave people with no choice, recidivism increases.”
The Project: The modernization project will further streamline the clemency application process by allowing people to file complete applications electronically, including through the development of the BOP’s first mobile app.
A more automated system is expected to improve efficiency, reduce errors and redundancies, and increase transparency. Applicants will be able to track their progress online.
“By reducing staff time spent responding to status requests and locating missing documents, and drastically reducing our reliance on paper applications, we will be able to shift our focus and resources more toward the goal of our agency, which is to help people,” Trusty said.
The press conference included a demo of the new system and personal stories shared by commutation and pardon recipients.
Among them were Corry Sanders, a Pittsburgh man whose 1993 felony drug conviction was impeding his community activism and his political aspirations. He was elected to McKeesport City Council, but state law prohibits people from serving if they have been convicted of a felony.
Since Governor Wolf signed Sanders’s pardon in 2019, Sanders is free to serve his community more fully, he said.
“This second chance allowed me to show and prove to others that my past mistakes were not my future destiny,” Sanders said. “Great things still lie ahead of me to achieve, and God is not through with me yet.”
Pardons are the first step to securing an expungement, when a conviction is removed from a person’s criminal record.
“We’ve seen numerous instances where people just want to get back to their lives, but because of some minor weed infraction that’s still on their record from 20 years ago, they’re told they can’t chaperone their kids on a field trip,” Fetterman said.
Streamlining the clemency process will give more deserving people easier access, Fetterman said. The efficiencies created will also allow staff members to process applications faster, as there is historically a backlog.
The technology work is being completed by developers in the Office of Administration, working closely with staff from the Board of Pardons and the Office of Lieutenant Governor. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Reform advances: Commutations were once seen as a relief valve for the overpopulated prison system, and sentence reductions were more commonplace. Then stunned officials nearly shut off the clemency process for lifers because of one man’s devastating post-release actions.
Decades later, Fetterman’s term as board chair advances Wolf’s shift in thinking in which “We can’t stop believing in second chances for everyone, forever,” Fetterman said.
Since taking office in 2019, Fetterman has prioritized bringing clemency to as many deserving people as possible. He hired two commutation recipients to help other people who are incarcerated apply for sentence reductions. He eliminated the filing fee for pardons and created an expedited program for people with certain nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.
“People’s lives shouldn’t be ruined by something most people don’t even think should be a crime,” he said.
The administration’s focus on clemency extends to First Lady Frances Wolf, who recently hosted a series of virtual conversations with reentry advocates. She said the Board of Pardons continues to improve the clemency process, making it easier to navigate and more accessible for Pennsylvanians.
“Today’s updates to the pardon application are one more example of that work,” she said. “Practical actions like this are critical to providing justice-impacted individuals second chances and building a strong and just commonwealth.”
Stephanie Sun, Executive Director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, said people with criminal records often struggle to build a better life.
“On top of that, for an immigrant or refugee, a criminal record can lead to detention, yet another prison, and deportation,” she said. “We are proud that Pennsylvania is leading the nation by being a welcoming and inclusive state, and the first state to create a Clean Slate law. The Clean Slate law enables immigrants with a criminal record to feel safe to go back to their communities when they finish their sentences, without fear of deportation for a past conviction.”