A Guide to Pennsylvania Clemency Options: Pardons and Commutations of Sentence
Pennsylvania Clemency : A Pennsylvania pardon is a way for a person convicted of a crime to regain their civil rights. The Pennsylvania governor sets aside the punishment or sentence for the crime. Overall, a Pennsylvania pardon allows a convicted individual to regain all of the rights of any other citizen. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommends applicants for pardons to the governor upon review of their applications. Importantly, Pennsylvania pardons are only available for Pennsylvania state crimes. Those convicted of federal crimes must seek clemency from the president.
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole operates under the Parole Act of 1941. When an inmate serves a prison sentence, he may be eligible for parole. Generally, parole involves the inmate serving out the remainder of his sentence outside of prison. There are certain conditions imposed for parole. The Parole Board is responsible for monitoring and supervising inmates who are out on parole.
Remember that parole is different from a pardon. An inmate on parole still has restrictions. On the other hand, a pardoned offender regains all of his rights to fully participate in society.
Pennsylvania Commutation of Sentence
A commutation of sentence means that the inmate serves a reduced sentence. This is one of the main forms of Pennsylvania clemency.
There are many reasons why the Pennsylvania governor may grant a sentence commutation. One of the major reasons is that the sentence could be too harsh. Also, the governor may find injustices in the way the criminal case proceeded.
Even with the great benefits from a commutation, the governor could still place conditions on the sentence reduction. Commonly, those convicted of crimes and granted sentence commutations may have to report for parole. Failure to follow any of those orders may end in the sentence resuming and loss of all clemency privileges.
Reprieves are another form of clemency in Pennsylvania. They fall under the authority of the governor to issue. The benefit of a reprieve is that it delays the imposition of a sentence following conviction. This can be a temporary delay in the hopes of overturning a conviction.
Pennsylvania Clemency : Authority to grant Clemency
The authority to grant clemency in Pennsylvania comes from the state constitution, Article 4, Section 9:
“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.”
Also, the state constitution creates the Board of Pardons and provides complete authority to the governor in adopting or rejecting their recommendation. The governor’s constitutional clemency powers apply to “all criminal cases.” The only exception is for impeachment crimes.
After granting a pardon, the governor may impose conditions on the pardon. Pennsylvania courts upheld conditional pardons in Commonwealth v. J.C.K. (Sup. Ct. 1994). If you received early release as part of a conditional pardon, violating the pardon conditions could send you back to prison. Worse yet, the court may reinstate the original conviction.
Pennsylvania Board of Pardons
The constitution provides for the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. It always has five members, including the lieutenant governor, attorney general, a crime victim, a corrections expert, and a doctor. The lieutenant governor always serves as chairman of the board. Aside from the lieutenant governor and attorney general, the other members serve six-year terms. The governor appoints these three members with Senate confirmation.
Pennsylvania Board of Parole
The Pennsylvania Board of Parole does not review clemency petitions for final approval. The Board of Parole only receives the pardon and commutation applications from the Board of Pardons. It does not participate in the clemency approval process except for the background investigation of applicants. The Board of Parole submits a written report to the Board of Pardons with its findings on the applicant’s background and the facts of the crime. Furthermore, the Parole Board mainly handles the review of inmate files for parole eligibility and the supervision of inmates released on parole.
The current Pennsylvania governor is Tom Wolf. Since he took office in 2015, Governor Wolfe issued 886 pardons. So far, he denied only six pardon applications against the Board of Pardons’ recommendations. Currently, Governor Wolfe has 160 pardon recommendations from the Board of Pardons up for final decision.
In the clemency petition process, remember that the Board of Pardons first approves or denies applications. Thus, applicants must meet high standards for the initial review before the governor has a chance to review the application. As such, applicants should enter the review process carefully because they cannot rely on direct appeals to the governor for clemency.
The application and review process for Pennsylvania clemency mostly occurs at the state level. However, the location of where the crime occurred is important for the district attorney involved. Also, the Board of Pardons publishes an official notice of upcoming clemency hearings in the newspaper of the county where the crime occurred.
Eligibility Requirements for Pennsylvania Clemency
To be eligible for clemency in Pennsylvania, an applicant must have a criminal conviction on their record from Pennsylvania. Any federal offenses, even if they came at the same time as state criminal charges, are ineligible for Pennsylvania clemency. The appropriate way to petition for clemency is through the Office of Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice. Only the president may grant clemency in federal criminal cases.
There are no waiting periods required for filing a Pennsylvania clemency petition. However, those with more recent criminal convictions may have more problems obtaining a pardon or commutation of sentence.
Any person who has a criminal conviction from a Pennsylvania state court may apply for a pardon. They do not have to wait for a specific period of time. However, applicants have to wait at least 12 months before reapplying after a rejected pardon application.
Parole is a privilege available to inmates after the end of their minimum prison sentence. If an inmate is serving a life sentence, he must apply for a sentence commutation. Parole is not available for those serving life in prison or sentenced to execution.
Pennsylvania Commutation of Sentence
Any Pennsylvania inmate convicted of a state crime may apply for a commutation of sentence. There is no required wait time after receiving a sentence before applying.
Any person convicted of a crime in Pennsylvania state court may apply for a reprieve. Essentially, this is a pause on the imposition of a punishment after conviction. Common Pennsylvania reprieve applicants include those sentenced to capital punishment.
Pennsylvania Expedited Review Program
There are only certain circumstances in which a pardon applicant may secure an expedited review process. Recently, the Pennsylvania governor tasked the legislature by eliminating criminal penalties for cannabis-related crimes. This led to the creation of an expedited review process for non-violent crimes involving cannabis.
The Main Factors Considered in Reviewing Applications for Pennsylvania Clemency
The Board of Pardons and the governor analyze the circumstances of each case in deciding pardon applications. While there is no official list of criteria that the Board of Pardons considers, their history of granting applications reveals some key trends.
The Amount of Time Passed
The Board of Pardons is more likely to grant applications for crimes that occurred a long time ago. This provides a longer opportunity for the applicant to show positive changes in their life and accountability for their actions.
The Severity of the Offense
Applicants with serious criminal offenses must have compelling reasons to request a pardon or sentence commutation. The Board of Pardons typically grants clemency in cases involving relatively minor crimes.
Your Criminal Record
Any criminal activities committed before the crime at issue may weigh against your application. Those with a long criminal record will have an uphill battle to prove that they have accepted responsibility for their decisions. In those cases, the applicant should show that they recently took big steps to living a better life.
Your Compliance with Court Orders
Be sure to pay any fines included in your sentence before submitting a clemency petition. Along those lines, complete any and all probation or parole requirements before submitting an application.
Your Actions Since the Crime
Your clemency application should absolutely convey all of your efforts and accomplishments since your conviction. This shows the Board of Pardons that you are serious about making positive choices in your life. The Board of Pardons does not want to grant clemency to someone who is likely to commit additional crimes afterward.
This is a good opportunity to have friends, family members, and other supporters submit letters of recommendation on your behalf. Working with a quality criminal defense lawyer in compiling these documents would help you approach and organize letters of recommendation.
The Impact on the Victim
The Board of Pardons considers the impact of the crime on the victim before granting clemency petitions. If the victim was severely injured or disabled as a result of the crime, convincing the Board of Pardons and governor to pardon or grant early release to the convicted individual it a tough ask. Non-violent crimes that do not involve harm to an individual victim make easier candidates for clemency.
Your Justification for Applying for Clemency
Your clemency application should go much further than simply stating that you would like a break. It is typically inadequate to tell the Board of Pardons that you want to move on with your life after a crime. Some examples of compelling reasons for clemency applications include imminent deportation, job opportunities, and housing changes.
This is a good topic to cover in the optional personal statement that can attach to the application. Even though the form does not require it, a personal statement can help your application stand out in a positive way. A skilled lawyer can work with you to craft an effective personal statement that draws in the reader’s attention immediately.
Effects of Pennsylvania Clemency
Most importantly, Pennsylvania clemency enables a convicted individual to reintegrate into society. The type of clemency that an applicant seeks determines what their life is like after conviction. As such, you should speak with an experienced attorney to determine which type of clemency applies in your case.
A Pennsylvania pardon signifies complete forgiveness by the state government for a Pennsylvania state crime. The pardon recipient receives full restoration of their civil rights. After the Pennsylvania governor grants a pardon, the recipient no longer has any more consequences or punishment for their crime.
Inmates go through the parole process when the Parole Board prepares their file. There is no guarantee that an incarcerated inmate can receive approval for parole. Unfortunately, there is no judicial review process or appeal for the denial of parole. However, an inmate may file a constitutional case to challenge the Parole Board’s denial.
Parole may begin once the inmate serves at least the minimum sentence amount. Obviously, parole begins before the maximum sentence date. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections calculates those dates for each parole file. In cases of life imprisonment sentences or execution, the Parole Board may not grant parole. If the inmate must serve at least two years in prison, the sentencing judge may not grant or deny parole by order. Rather, the Parole Board exercises its discretion in those cases.
If an inmate violates the conditions of his parole, he may lose the privilege. After that, the inmate may have to serve additional time in prison.
Commutation of Sentence
A commutation of a prison sentence in Pennsylvania means an early release from prison for the recipient. Following the end of the commuted sentence, the recipient no longer needs to serve any prison time.
An inmate sentenced to death can request a commutation to life imprisonment. This allows them to avoid the death penalty entirely. Similarly, an inmate serving a life sentence can request a commutation of a life sentence to life on parole. Lastly, an inmate can request a commutation of their minimum or maximum sentence so that they serve less time in prison.
A reprieve from the Pennsylvania governor results in a temporary postponement of a punishment. The most common instance of the governor issuing a reprieve is in capital punishment cases. While the governor may not abolish the death penalty on his own, he may delay its imposition in certain cases.
A recent example of a reprieve in a Pennsylvania death penalty case was in 2015 for Terrance Williams. He robbed and then murdered a woman using a tire iron and faced the death penalty. In the end, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a reprieve. The reprieve allowed a bipartisan committee to investigate the problems with the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania.
The Process for Obtaining Clemency in Pennsylvania
The process of applying for Pennsylvania clemency is fairly difficult to get through. There are multiple steps and factors to meet for a successful application.
Even though this is a complicated process to get through, the possibilities for moving on after a conviction make it worthwhile. You could end up with a reduced prison sentence, pardon or delay in punishment. Retaining a competent criminal defense attorney, such as Attorney Brandon Sample, will make the process much smoother.
PA Pardon Application
The Pennsylvania pardon application is available for submission online. To put your best foot forward, speak with a helpful Pennsylvania pardon attorney like Brandon Sample. Work with a lawyer to fill out the application and gather supporting evidence and documents before you submit it.
Be aware that there are serious consequences for submitting false information in a Pennsylvania pardon application. Your answers to the form questions must be truthful and accurate. Do not jeopardize your case or risk additional criminal penalties by submitting knowingly false information on a pardon application.
While the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole does not handle pardon recommendations, it does assist with the investigation part. After receiving a pardon petition, the Board of Pardons forwards it to the Board of Probation and Parole. Then, the Parole Board examines the inmate information to perform a background investigation.
Along with reviewing the facts of the crime, the Parole Board can request a meeting with the pardon applicant. If the pardon applicant does not show up for the meeting or comply with requests, the Board of Pardons will reject the petition. Also, the Parole Board can request supporting documents from the applicant. Failure to provide those documents will likewise void the pardon application.
PA Commutation of Sentence
To obtain a reduced sentence, a convicted individual must submit an official written petition. Then, the Board of Pardons sends the petition to the district attorney and the Board of Probation and Parole. After that, the Board of Probation and Parole conducts an investigation of the application. It provides a summary of its findings to the Board of Pardons.
The five members of the Board of Pardons considers the Parole Board’s findings. The members then vote on whether the petition should go forward to a hearing. If the applicant does not get a hearing, the application process ends.
The Board of Pardons estimates that 15% of all clemency petitions it reviews are for sentence commutations. The remainder are for pardon applications or a reprieve in a death penalty case.
There are five members on the Board of Pardons. After the initial review and investigation, they each vote on whether to proceed to a hearing. Two of the five members must suggest a hearing. But this number increases to three members in cases involving life sentences.
What Happens in Court
Finally, the clemency petition hearing takes place in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Even though the hearing is not in a formal legal atmosphere, every detail matters. Do not make the mistake of taking a relaxed approach to the clemency hearing. You will have only a short window in which to make your case for why you deserve clemency.
The justices limit the hearings to only 15 minutes. This is a short amount of time in which to present your case. This could involve testimony from your character witnesses. Additionally, you will present evidence and testimony on why you deserve clemency. You may appear with a lawyer at the hearing.
Be ready to answer any questions from the members of the Board of Pardons. You must be truthful and accurate, but you should prepare with an attorney first so that you can effectively make your case.
Along with those who support your clemency petition, the court will hear from those who oppose the petition. For example, any victims of the crime or their loved ones may testify against the petition. Having a criminal defense attorney advocate for you at the hearing can help navigate the challenge of responding to any negative testimony against you.
At least three of the five members of the Board of Pardons must vote for a pardon. In cases of commutations for life sentences or the death penalty, the Board must unanimously recommend approval. The members issue their votes on the record in public.
Next, their recommendation goes to the governor for his final decision. The Pennsylvania governor maintains total discretion over whether to follow the Board of Pardons’ recommendations or not.
After a Rejection of a Pardon Application
After the governor rejects a pardon application, the applicant may resubmit. However, they must wait at least 12 months before filing and demonstrate that new circumstances warrant another review. There must be significant changes to the applicant’s case to merit reconsideration of a denied application. Once the applicant receives a second denial, he must wait at least 24 months before reapplying.
Why is it Important to Hire Clemency Attorney in Pennsylvania
As you can see, there are many factors involved in obtaining a reprieve in Pennsylvania. The process is not easy to navigate without prior legal knowledge and experience. Attorneys who regularly practice criminal law can advise Pennsylvania clemency applicants on the process. The significance of receiving clemency is important enough that you do not want to make unnecessary mishaps with the application.
Properly Supporting Your Clemency Application
Completing the application form for a Pennsylvania clemency petition requires an understanding of the process and specific questions asked. Failure to answer each question adequately could result in delays with the review of your application. In addition, your answers could jeopardize your application or implicate you in additional criminal activities.
Filling out the petition correctly and submitting the supporting documentation is not something that you should leave to chance. Beginning the application process without the help of a criminal defense attorney is a potentially costly mistake.
Even though the form does not require extensive supporting evidence, you should still submit it. An experienced attorney can advise you on what types of letters of support are best to request from friends, family members, and others. Including supporting evidence of self-improvement and good moral character can make all the difference in your application.
Managing the Clemency Review Timeline
Filing for clemency in Pennsylvania is a time-consuming and draining exercise because of how slowly the reviews progress. Keep in mind that the review process for clemency petitions in Pennsylvania can take years to get through. Therefore, any mistakes in the application process that delay your petition can cause serious harm. That is why you must be sure to submit everything accurately the first time.
Preparing for a Hearing
If your clemency application makes it through the first round, the Board of Pardons will schedule a hearing. While not a traditionally formal type of hearing, applicants should take it seriously. You should not attempt to represent yourself at this hearing. Connecting with a top-quality clemency attorney is the best way to properly prepare for a successful clemency hearing.
Quality Representation for Pennsylvania Clemency Applications
Fortunately, Attorney Brandon Sample has years of experience with helping clients to obtain reprieves. The law firm of Brandon Sample, PLC assists clients across the country with their clemency petitions. As such, our knowledgeable legal team is well-versed in the requirements of Pennsylvania clemency petitions, including reprieves, sentence commutations, and pardons.
Before you start a Pennsylvania clemency application, consult with Attorney Brandon Sample for free. We offer a no-cost initial consultation to discuss the specifics of your case and determine whether a Pennsylvania clemency application is appropriate.
Contact our office today to set up an appointment for your free initial consultation. We can review the details of your potential Pennsylvania clemency petition. Then, we can discuss how our skilled legal team can assist with your criminal matter. Call us at 802-444-HELP (4357), or fill out our convenient online contact form.
How Hard is it to Get a Pardon in Pennsylvania
Decisions on pardon applications vary across administrations and according to the circumstances of each case. The good news is that many Pennsylvania inmates (close to 10% of those who applied) received pardons from the governor. Of the 208 recommendations for pardons from the Board of Pardons, the governor did not reject any so far.
Although the potential to improve your sentence or receive a pardon is promising, it still requires a detailed application. The vetting process by the Board of Pardons is intense before the governor ever reads an application. Therefore, it is crucial to submit a detailed and well-supported application from the start.
Clemency Applications Received:
The Board of Pardons and the governor consider the individual facts of each case in reviewing pardon applications. For example, a person with more than one criminal conviction will have a tougher case to prove. Likewise, those convicted of serious offenses will have a more difficult case to make. In general, the more time since the criminal offense, the more likely the Board of Pardons will vote favorably.
Keep in mind that the Board of Pardons and the governor have a lot of discretion in how they evaluate clemency petitions. They do not face appeals or any other review of their decisions. This means that they do not have to provide clear justifications for their decisions. Without years of legal training, it is nearly impossible to understand what makes the difference in a successful clemency petition.
PA Governor Pardon Statistics
The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons maintains statistics and information on the clemency applications received by year and the governor’s ultimate decisions.
In 2018, the Pennsylvania governor received 543 total clemency applications. In total, the Pennsylvania governor granted 268 pardons and denied two. In addition, he granted one petition for a commutation of a life sentence.
Likewise, in 2019, the Pennsylvania governor received 565 total clemency applications so far. In total, the Pennsylvania governor granted 58 pardons and denied none so far. In addition, he granted six petitions for a commutation of a life sentence. To date, there are still 160 cases currently under review by the governor for this year.
In sum, recent decisions by the Pennsylvania governor on clemency applications are promising. Even though the governor does not grant all clemency applications, there are still plenty of opportunities for compelling applications to result in approval. The bottom line is that your clemency application must be compelling and detailed to make it past the first hurdle with the Board of Pardons.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Clemency in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania clemency application and approval process is complex and varies according to each case. Those unfamiliar with the criminal justice process may find the application overwhelming. Learn about some of the most common issues that arise in the Pennsylvania clemency process below.
Is the Pennsylvania Clemency Petition Available Online?
Yes. There is an online version in pdf form here. The processing time is faster for the online application, but you can also submit one by mail.
This application form requires careful consideration and detailed responses. You should not attempt to fill it out quickly and send it in prematurely. Also, you should include all parts of your application package, such as a personal statement and supporting letters, with your submission. You can prolong the review time or end up with an incomplete application if you submit it in parts.
What is the Timeline for the Pennsylvania Clemency Process?
There are not any time limits on the processing of a clemency petition. Right now, the Board of Pardons is behind on processing clemency applications. It may take as long as 2.5 years from filing the petition before the Board of Pardon Reviews it. After that, there is no deadline on when the governor makes a decision.
That said, the personal statement part of the application is a good place to indicate why immediate clemency would make a difference for you. You should be able to clearly state the reasons why you are seeking clemency. If presented well, this should create a sense of urgency for the Board of Pardons to consider your request. Attorney Brandon Sample can assist with drafting informative and persuasive personal statements that encourage the Board of Pardons to act quickly.
Can You Expedite the Review Process?
For general clemency applications, there is no direct way to request an expedited review of a clemency application. However, the governor requested that the legislature reconsider criminal penalties for non-violent cannabis-related offenses on September 25, 2019. Since then, the Board of Pardons considers clemency applications for non-violent cannabis-related offenses on a faster track.
An applicant can apply separately through the expedited review process for cannabis offenses. For these applications, the Board of Pardons focuses on the impact of the sentence on the offender’s life rather than the specific circumstances of the conviction. For instance, the recency of the crime is less relevant in the Board of Pardons’ review of clemency petitions for non-violent cannabis offenses.
What Does a Pennsylvania Pardon Mean for the Convicted Individual?
A Pennsylvania pardon does not erase the conviction. Instead, a pardon restores an individual’s legal rights as a resident of Pennsylvania. For example, a pardoned individual in Pennsylvania can vote, serve on a jury, own firearms, run for public office, serve in the military and travel internationally.
What Happens to Your Record After a Pennsylvania Pardon?
First of all, a pardon is different from expungement. It does not get rid of the conviction from your permanent criminal record. However, obtaining a Pennsylvania pardon means that you are eligible to expunge your criminal record. This is the best way to clear your record of any trace of criminal convictions.
It is worthwhile to work with a criminal defense attorney to expunge your criminal record after a Pennsylvania pardon. Applying for an expungement after receiving a pardon is the most efficient way to ensure that you have a clear record.
How Can You Clear Your Pennsylvania Criminal Record?
Expungement is how convicted individuals clear their Pennsylvania criminal record. Although you may be able to clear your record without a pardon, having a pardon certainly helps in the process.
According to Pennsylvania Act 134, expungement is available to those convicted of summary offenses without first getting a pardon. Most crimes require a five-year waiting period after completing a sentence before filing a petition for expungement. The waiting period increases to 10 years for more serious offenses.
What Can You Report on an Employment Application After Receiving a Pennsylvania Pardon?
After receiving a pardon, you can legally report on an employment application that you do not have a criminal conviction. This is because a pardon is an act of mercy by the Pennsylvania governor. Thus, the individual receives complete forgiveness for the criminal offense.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled on this issue involving the effect of a pardon in 1977 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Sutley. This case states that the pardon frees the recipient from any further obligation to the state.
Even so, individuals seeking a job after a criminal conviction should take the next step of petitioning for expungement. Depending on the circumstances, an individual may still need to disclose certain criminal convictions. Speaking to a criminal attorney is the best way to address how to respond to legal questions about your record.
Finding Assistance for Your Pennsylvania Clemency Application
In conclusion, the Pennsylvania clemency application process is not something that you should navigate alone. If you or a loved one are dealing with the aftermath of a criminal conviction, contact a trusted criminal defense lawyer to assist with your petition. Avoid costly mistakes by filling out the application and managing the filing.
One of the most important things to discuss with your lawyer right away is what form of clemency in Pennsylvania is best for your case. No two cases are the same, and they each deserve the undivided attention of a skilled criminal defense attorney. Making sound strategic choices with the help of a lawyer at the beginning can prevent undue stress in the end.
Contact Attorney Brandon Sample Today
When it comes to setting yourself up for success in dealing with a criminal conviction, call Brandon Sample, PLC at 802-444-HELP (4357). Phone is the quickest way to reach our office for urgent matters. You can also fill out our online contact form. Set up an appointment with our team as soon as possible to start working on a Pennsylvania clemency application.