Let’s talk about pardons and clean slates in Pennsylvania

November 10 – There has been some legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently that deals with crime and criminals. 

The first is a bill that would do away with needing all five members of the pardon board to agree to give a pardon to life sentenced criminals. 

It was sponsored by PA House Speaker Joanna McClinton. 

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “She ties it into the racial justice quite a bit in her memo and why she’s doing this. In a time when we’re finding too much leniency when it comes to putting people back out on the street. I know there was another college student who was shot by somebody who maybe should not have been out on the street that just happened down south, why is she saying this all came about with the 90s crackdown on criminals and we should be loosening these strings a bit more?”

Currently there are five people on the pardon board and at the moment, all five must unanimously agree for someone to receive a pardon. 

McClinton’s bill would mean only three people on the pardon board would need to sign off. 

PA Representative Paul Schemel said, “In the past it was three of five at one time. It was changed during sort of the tough on crime era. The tough on crime era was successful in some respects, but also, if you think about these measures, sometimes like a pendulum, we also in Pennsylvania imprison more people than any other state, at great expense. As we look at criminal justice reforms, we look okay, where are we right on this? And where do we not necessarily need to be as punitive or at least for as long? Her initiative there as part of that. Her concern is that if there’s one person on the pardon board that doesn’t want to give anyone a pardon, then no one gets a pardon. That’s never been the case. The pardon board actually has given lots of pardons. I’m certainly not in favor of three out of five, I’m happy to make it five out of five. I would consider making it four out of five. That’s the super majority of that board, so if you had one person that would never want to grant a problem, but it’s a solution seeking a problem, in my estimation.”

Clean Slate legislation is also coming up in Harrisburg, which would remove some convictions from a person’s record. 

The current Clean Slate law in PA took effect in 2018, but additional legislation would expand it even more. 

Attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “It would essentially expunge the records for nonviolent felons and that would be automatic if they’ve been crime free for 10 years after the crime. Misdemeanors would also be removed. They would be sealed after seven years. A lot of workers are pointing out they have these old records that are preventing them from getting employed. They’re also saying it’s preventing them from finding housing.”

Jansen said, “It does make sense if someone has lived a clean life for many years probably and they have something on their record from when they were young and dumb, that they can get that removed so that it doesn’t haunt them for the rest of their lives. But then there’s always this concern is there’s something kind of inserted in there that could be taken a different way?”

Schemel said, “Clean slate proposals, first off, they never include things that are an aggravated assault or sexual abuse or anything like that. It’s actually employers that often ask us for it because they have insurance issues. If they have to do a criminal background check and the criminal background check picks up if this person had a DUI 20 years ago or this person had some offense from long ago, then they have issues with their insurance not being able to hire them. So it’s actually employers that ask us for a clean slate, because it helps them. Statistically when people get beyond the age of 35, their rates of committing crime plummet. I actually support most clean slate proposals because I think it gives people a clean start. I mean, statistically, we’re almost 100 percent guaranteed, they’re not going to reoffend. These are people that have been clean for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, no real offenses and so forth. It doesn’t make the offense go away, but when you do an average criminal background check, it won’t show up. But again, if someone has committed any sort of abuse against the child or any sort of really bad felony offense, that’s going to show up, but the smaller offenses just become part of your past.”

Jansen asked, “But if they reoffend in some way, the people prosecuting new offenses will have knowledge and access to this from the past.” 

Schemel confirmed, “The offense is still there, so a district attorney or a police investigator would still be aware of them.”

Barkdoll said, “Even though their record is sealed for a record check for an employer or a housing application, there’s still scenarios where law enforcement can see that prior record. So if you get arrested again, the district attorney can see that and that would be used in your possible sentence or enhancing your sentence with a prior record. This is a tough issue. There is bipartisan support for this. There’s been testimony in Harrisburg. The scenario was I had a felony criminal trespass charge when I was 20 and here I am at 40 or 50 and it keeps showing up and it’s preventing me from leading my life. I feel for that person. I think there’s merit to that, but it needs to be carefully done. There’s obviously some things here that you could see where this could be abused, but there’s only six legislative session days left this year. This will likely be on an upcoming vote and I think there’s a pretty good chance this is going to pass.”

Some firearms laws are looking to hold parents accountable for children using their weapons. 

Schemel said, “First off, no one wants their child, if a child picks up a gun that belongs to their parents and then shoots someone or shoots themselves, what these proposals would do would be criminally prosecute the parent. That’s a traumatic situation where that child has gotten their hands on a firearm and injured themselves or injured someone else. Who thinks it’s a good idea to go prosecute the parents for that? I mean, the parents are already undergoing a lot of emotional fallout from that type of event. So this is I think a really bad approach because you don’t penalize someone who’s got the ultimate penalty, their child or someone they love has been killed. I don’t think that’s going to make anyone more safe. I mean, who’s going to think I would leave my firearm in my dresser drawer, but I’m not going to because I want to be prosecuted if my child kills themselves. I mean, not at all.”