Your life is not defined by your mistakes.
Written by Taylor E. Pacheco, Esq., Deputy Executive Director, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity
For thousands of Philadelphians, the consequences of a criminal conviction or arrest don’t stop when they complete their sentence. A criminal record can follow an individual for the rest of their life, impacting their ability to find employment, secure housing, seek higher education, and more. There are two main paths to clearing a criminal record in Pennsylvania: expungements and pardons.
Although there are a few exceptions, expungements are generally only for arrest records, or criminal cases that did not end in a finding of guilt or a guilty plea. An expungement starts with a petition, filed in the courthouse of the county in which the criminal case occurred. This petition can be filed with the help of a lawyer, or “pro se,” which means that the filer does not have a lawyer. Filing the petition may incur fees, depending on the county and the financial status of the filer. Once the petition is filed, it is scheduled for a court hearing before a judge, and the local district attorney’s office is given a chance to object to the petition for expungement. If they don’t object, the expungement petition will be reviewed by the judge and can be signed and granted without a hearing. If they do object, there will be a hearing, and both parties will have a chance to argue their case, and the judge will make a decision about granting the petition.
Once a petition is granted, a copy of the judge’s order is sent to the courts, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the local police department that arrested the individual, ordering them to expunge the record. Once they do, they mail confirmation of the expungement to the petitioner or their attorney.
This process takes about 6 months to a year to complete, from filing to receipt of the confirmations. This timeline can vary depending on how quickly the courts and the police process.
Since convictions, or cases that ended in a finding of guilt, generally cannot be cleared through the expungement process, many individuals also need to seek a pardon. Pardons are not a court process. A pardon can only be granted by the Governor of Pennsylvania. Pardons start with an application to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. The application is available for free download on the BOP’s website. Applicants do not need a lawyer to apply. The application asks for biographical information, a short answer narrative about the convictions for which they are seeking a pardon, and a personal statement essay explaining how the applicant has changed since their conviction, and why they are a good candidate for clemency.
Applicants also must submit court documents relating to their convictions, and may also include letters of reference, diplomas, and/or certificates of achievement. After submitting the application, applicants can expect an interview with an officer from the State Board of Probation and Parole and a public hearing. At the public hearing, an applicant must obtain the votes of three members of the Board of Pardons in order to secure a recommendation. With the recommendation, their application will be submitted to the Governor for final signature approval. After a pardon, an individual is eligible to have their whole Pennsylvania record expunged, convictions and all.
The pardon process is lengthy: it takes approximately 3.5 years to fully process, although there are options for expedited review for qualifying applicants. Although these processes do take time, they are the only way to fully free oneself from the legal disability of a criminal record: these records never go away, even after many years, even if they are only arrest records. The good news is that right now, over 80% of people who start this process get recommended for a pardon and are able to be completely free of their criminal record. Three years may seem like a long time. But three years compared to a lifetime with a criminal record makes this process very worth it.