How Does Clemency Work in Pennsylvania?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Nov 07, 2017 | 0 Comments

When a person is convicted or pleads guilty to a crime in Pennsylvania, there can be many consequences.  The prospect of a jail or prison sentence may seem obvious, but some consequences may be unforeseen. For example, a person's criminal record can hold them back in various areas of life, and in many instances, there is no realistic relief available to clear one's record.   Convictions involving felonies or misdemeanors of the first degree are ineligible for an expungement, unless exceptional circumstances are met (exceptions that generally do not help people seeking such relief), or even record sealing.  In such instances, sometimes the only option for a person who is trying to advance in their career, further their education, or pursue anything that would help them better themselves, is to pursue what is known as "executive clemency" in Pennsylvania.  In other instances, a defendant and his or her family may believe that the defendant's debt to society has been paid after being incarcerated, but the defendant may have time left to serve before being eligible for parole.  Again, executive clemency may be the only realistic form of relief in such circumstances.

What is executive clemency in Pennsylvania?

Clemency in Pennsylvania encompasses various forms of relief, although some will be more commonly sought than others. The Pennsylvania Governor's power to grant clemency is found in Article 4 of Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  In almost all criminal cases, the Governor of Pennsylvania has the power to vacate fines and property forfeitures, to grant reprieves, commutation of sentences, and pardons.  Although the Governor's power seem absolute, it is important to note that no pardon may be granted or sentence commuted by the Governor except on the recommendation in writing of a majority of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, after a full hearing in open session after notice is given to the public.  As such, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons is the gatekeeper to whether or not a pardon, commutation of sentence, or other form of relief will be granted.

What is the difference between a commutation of a sentence and a pardon?

In Pennsylvania, a commutation of a sentence generally "advances" the eligibility date for parole or reduces the defendant's maximum time.  A pardon, however, technically "terminates" the defendant's sentence (although most people who seek a pardon in Pennsylvania do so as a steps towards clearing their criminal record).

Who decides if I will be granted a pardon in Pennsylvania?

Ultimately, the Governor of Pennsylvania will decide on whether a pardon, commutation of a sentence, or other form of relief will be granted, but the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons has tremendous input into whether such a request reaches the Governor's desk. 

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons itself is a "departmental administrative board" within the Pennsylvania Department of Justice.  The Board of Pardons has the power to hear applications for the remission of fines and forfeitures, and the granting of reprieves, commutation of sentence, and pardons in all cases except those involving treason. The Board of Pardons also has the power to make recommendations on the on applications involving all of the above matters to the Governor of Pennsylvania.  The Governor of Pennsylvania will then decide whether the application will be granted or denied based upon the Board's recommendation.

Who sits on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons?  Who will hear my case?

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons consists of the Lieutenant Governor, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, and three members appointed by the Governor of Pennsylvania.  When a petitioner's pardon hearing takes place, the Board of Pardons hearing panel will consist of these five parties.

How does the pardon process work in Pennsylvania?

The first step in seeking a pardon, or other form of clemency in Pennsylvania, is to complete an application to request a hearing.  The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons hears applications for clemency of the following types:

  • Pardon
  • Commutation of a death sentence to life imprisonment
  • Commutation of a life sentence to life on parole
  • Commutation of the minimum sentence of a confined person
  • Commutation of the maximum sentence of a person, whether or not confined in prison
  • Remission of fines and forfeitures

All applications for clemency must be properly drafted and filed with the secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.  The second step is to be granted a hearing.  If the Board of Pardons grants a petitioner a hearing, the hearing itself will be open to the public.  Hearings before the Board of Pardons are held at regular monthly intervals.

What happens on the day of my pardon hearing in Pennsylvania?

The pardon hearing itself will take place in Harrisburg, PA.  If the applicant is not incarcerated, he or she must appear before the Board of Pardons unless his or her presence is excused for good cause.  (Although it may be an option at times, it would obviously be unwise to invest the time and effort to obtain a pardon hearing in Pennsylvania to not appear at the hearing itself.)  If the applicant is incarcerated and is self-represented, he or she may designate any other person to appear before the Board to argue his or her case.  The applicant's attorney will otherwise be responsible for presenting the case to Board of Pardons as to why the applicant's request should be granted.

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons may take testimony through depositions, which is a prior-recorded testimony under oath, or through witnesses, or in some instances, through written communication to the Board.  Unlike court proceedings in Pennsylvania, Witnesses who appear before the Board are not sworn prior to giving their testimony. 

Although the Pennsylvania Constitution requires that the Board of Pardons state the reason for a Board recommendation of commutation, the Board is not required to provide a record of the reason or reasons why commutation is denied.

Pennsylvania Pardon Attorney | Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

A person with a criminal record should always consider the option of seeking an engagement or record sealing first.  If it is determined that a person is ineligible to seek such relief, seeking clemency may have to be considered.  Pardons and commutations of sentences will generally be the most common form of clemency sought in Pennsylvania, but regardless of which specific relief is needed, an applicant and his or her family must attend to the clemency process in the most effective manner possible. 

Ultimately, the strongest application possible has to be submitted to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons to maximize the chances of being granted a hearing, and if a hearing is granted, the strongest possible case has to be presented on the day of the hearing.  Our Criminal Law Team can help maximize your chances of success - Contact us today.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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