Come Monday, Pennsylvanians can apply for pardons for free
If you want to get a conviction scrubbed in Pennsylvania, you had better have at least $63 set aside. Eight bucks to download the application. $20 for a criminal background check, another $10 for a driving record, and then a $25 processing fee.
At least, that was the case until now.
The commonwealth’s Board of Pardons has voted unanimously to get rid of all application fees, starting March 18.
Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is in his first few months as board chair, said he thinks they’re just too burdensome.
“The amount of money isn’t meaningful to the commonwealth,” Fetterman said. “It would just create a barrier where people would have to chase down a money order for $15 here, or this, or that — it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Getting rid of the fees is the first in what Fetterman said is a long list of changes he plans to make to the Pardons Board.
One of the others? Moving the application process online.
“It’s 2019,” he said. “You can order food delivery, you can get your cable installation appointment set up online, you can do your taxes, you can go to school online, but you can’t access this process.”
It’s a change Fetterman said could be accomplished with a vote from the board itself. But others, he noted, would need legislative approval.
For instance, changing the number of votes necessary to commute life or death sentences would require a constitutional amendment — and that entails legislative passage on two occasions and approval by voter referendum.
Most sentences can be commuted with a majority vote by the Pardons Board. But in cases wherein a person is sentenced to death or life in prison, the vote has to be unanimous.
The law wasn’t always this way.
It was changed in 1997 after a man who had been sentenced to life, Reginald McFadden, had his sentence commuted by a simple majority of the Pardons Board and went on to kill two people and rape another in New York.
Fetterman said he thinks there should be a compromise on life sentences. He wants to require a 4-1 vote as the minimum for recommendation to the governor.
That, he said, “still is a very high bar … but it provides a mechanism for somebody who just, for whatever reason, can’t get to a yes.”
The Board of Pardons reports that over Governor Tom Wolf’s four-year tenure, it has recommended six people for life sentence commutations, four of which the governor has granted.
That number plummeted after the bar for commutation was raised in 1997.
For instance, Democratic Governor Bob Casey — who was in office when Reginald McFadden got his pardon and went on a killing spree — commuted 27 life sentences.
Milton Shapp, the Democrat who served from 1971 to 1978, commuted 251.