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HARRISBURG — The process for inmates and ex-convicts in Pennsylvania to apply for clemency is expected to be fully online by the end of the year, an effort to improve access to an emerging cornerstone of the criminal justice movement in the country and to reduce the multi-year wait, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said Monday.
Fetterman told a press conference on Capitol Hill that his goal is for the state Board of Pardons to use the online system to process a request for a pardon or commutation in a year or less.
The process often takes several years currently under what Fetterman calls an inefficient, paper-based system.
Its goal, Fetterman said, is to make the process “A lot faster and a lot more responsive, and the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons is going to be able to be a lot more decisive and quick because we’ll get the information a lot faster and in a unified way.”
April is nationally recognized as Second Chance Month.
Fetterman, as lieutenant governor, chairs the five-member pardons board and has worked to turn the small agency into a bigger tool in a criminal justice reform movement working to undo age-old laws and systems. several decades that swelled prison populations, disproportionately with racial minorities.
Inmates may be granted early release from prison under a commutation approved by the board and the governor. A person convicted of a crime can obtain a council-approved pardon, erasing the conviction from their record to help them find employment or ensure an unimpeded return to society.
The council — which has less than 10 staff and is aided by a few employees from Fetterman’s office — is processing more requests than ever, as Fetterman has made the avenue known.
Akeem Sims, who appeared with Fetterman at the press conference, said he asked for a pardon in 2015 and got it in 2021.
Sims – who now works for an accounting firm in suburban Philadelphia – said he was once rejected for a job at a Wal-Mart warehouse because of a drug conviction on his record.
He said he hoped the move to an online system would lead to increased requests, awareness and approvals, “people are granted a grace and can live a fulfilling life.”
Often a request requires dozens of pages of paper – if not more – of a plaintiff’s criminal court case and sometimes requires a plaintiff to submit information by mail multiple times. Checking its status requires a phone call.
As part of the new digitization project, each candidate should be able to file online and receive a unique account number that they can use to upload documents, verify the process and communicate with council staff.
Fetterman’s mission was backed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, as well as the Republican-controlled legislature, which approved $1.1 million to digitize the nomination process.
Currently, Pennsylvania is in the middle of the pack for incarceration rates when counting inmates in state prisons, according to The Sentencing Project, although it has long been a leader in the number of people on probation or on parole.
The Rights Restoration Project lists Pennsylvania among 17 states that have a regularly used clemency process in which a significant number of applications are granted.
The pardons system once required a person seeking an application to send a check or money order, wait to receive the application in the mail, and then mail it back, completed, with paperwork from their criminal case — and another payment.
After Fetterman took office in 2019, the Fetterman-led board voted to get rid of fees and create an online application that can be downloaded online and is less cumbersome to complete.