Expungement, Sealing, and Pardons
Pennsylvania has taken strides to expand the ability to limit access to one’s criminal record. There are various methods in Pennsylvania to limit access to or erase (expunge) criminal records, but they all require different processes and some methods can only be used on certain types of records. Clean Slate, which was passed last year and began sealing millions of records in June 2019, should greatly increase the ability of Pennsylvanians to move beyond past criminal histories.
Sealing is the process of limiting access to, but not destroying criminal records. With the enactment of Clean Slate, there are now two ways that records will be sealed in Pennsylvania – automatically or by petition. Once Clean Slate is fully implemented, all future and many past records that are eligible should be automatically sealed without requiring further action on the part of the person.
There are a few things to look out for to determine if sealing applies in a particular case. Non-conviction data such as acquittals and dismissals should be automatically sealed. Similarly, summary offenses should also be automatically sealed after 10 years. Second degree, third degree, and ungraded misdemeanors can also be eligible for automatic sealing. In all cases, all fines, fees and costs must be paid in full.
Under Clean Slate, many misdemeanor convictions can be sealed so long as the person remains conviction-free for 10 years. Depending on the person’s entire criminal record, they may have to be conviction free for 15 or 20 years. Again, all fines, fees and costs must be paid in full. Keep in mind, however, that a sealed conviction can be reopened if the person subsequently offends.
Expungements physically destroy the records. Law enforcement agencies, however, can still retain them in a confidential file. Summary convictions are also eligible for expungement so long as there has been a 5-year period without any arrests or conviction and all court fines, fees and costs have been paid in full. Otherwise, expungements are generally limited to certain cases, such as non-convictions, or when the person has been arrest- and prosecution-free for 10 years after turning 70 years of age.
A pardon is an action by the Governor of Pennsylvania which forgives offenders for the conviction, which then enables them to erase/expunge the convictions from their criminal record. The pardon process can take three to five years. Typically, serious crimes are only pardoned if a certain number of years have passed since the crime was committed, however, there is no specific rule stating the length of time you should wait. Other important factors considered by the Board is proof of rehabilitation and a showing that the applicant admits to doing wrong and takes full responsibility for their actions. Thus, these factors can often only be proven through the passage of time.
The application is several pages long and asks you a variety of questions. You should be prepared to provide specific details regarding the crime. For example, you must state the date of the crime, the city where you were tried, and the name of the judge who presided over your trial and/or sentenced you. You must also list every time you were arrested and any citation (including traffic) you ever received. The most important questions require you to discuss your conduct since the crime was committed and to explain why you should be pardoned. Among other items, you should be able to produce letters of support/recommendation and documented proof of achievements and community service.
After you file the application with the Board of Pardons in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, staff from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole will eventually interview you based on what is in your application and the court file. The agent will then prepare a report based on this interview and send it to the Board.
The Board consists of five members. In general, to get a hearing, at least two members (some crimes require three members) of the Board must vote to grant you a hearing. Please note that hearings for those serving a life sentence or for prisoners serving time for crimes of violence may only be granted a hearing upon approval of three Board members. Attempted crimes of violence are included in this, and offenses committed while in visible possession of a firearm, for which sentencing was imposed, will also require a three member vote. Hearings are open to the public and take place in Harrisburg. You do not need an attorney, but you can choose to be represented by an attorney or anyone else you designate. At the hearing, the Board will ask questions about the crime, your overall history, and conduct since the crime. The hearing only lasts 15 minutes.
If a majority of the members of the Board recommend that you receive a pardon, then the recommendation will be sent to the Governor. The Governor has the final say, but tends to follow the recommendation of the Board. If the Governor grants the pardon, you will receive a signed charter granting the pardon. After you receive the charter granting your pardon, you must go to the Clerk of Court in the county where you were convicted of the crime and file a petition for expungement. The Judge who presides over the motion should follow the Governor’s order and expunge your criminal record. All records of the crime will be erased from local, state and federal files, and you will no longer have a criminal record.
The bi-partisan passage of Clean Slate demonstrates an expansion in the public’s acceptance of how important it is to close the second chance gap for citizens who are seeking to become self-sufficient through employment. The opportunities that Clean Slate sealing, Expungements and Pardons provide for the public also increases access to housing and education. These options make it possible for people to move on with their lives without the obstacles having a criminal record produces. We urge those impacted to seek help in taking advantage of the options outlined in this article. They are truly life changing.
NPLS assists eligible applicants who are facing barriers to employment because of their record; some offices have regular clinics and conduct outreaches, and others meet with clients individually. Please apply for help at 877-953-4250 or www.northpennlegal.org/get-help. For more information, or to volunteer pro bono time to the screening project, please go to www.mycleanslatepa.org, a website developed by Community Legal Services in Partnership with the Pennsylvania Bar association. Attorneys who are interested in volunteering may also contact their local NPLS office or local bar association to offer this valuable service.
The expungement and pardon process takes time and effort. If successful, however, you will find it a worthwhile experience. Criminal records can be erased, thus opening the door to employment, housing, education and other privileges.