By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
With the eagerly anticipated Clean Slate law soon to go into effect, Pa. Reps Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley said it was time for a crash-course in the different paths to pardons the commonwealth has to offer.
In that vein, elected officials, residents, and an assortment of experts gathered Sept. 5 at the Hosanna House in the heart of Wilkinsburg to learn the ins and outs of obtaining a clear record.
Under the state’s Clean Slate Law, after 10 years the criminal records of those convicted or found not guilty of non-violent offenses will be automatically sealed, barring any further brushes with the law. However, for others with convictions on record, problems can persist. For some people, this means difficulty in gaining employment or even being able to find housing.
Wheatly and Gainey told the roughly 75 residents in attendance that carrying a lifetime of stigma, after having served time was unfair.
“We have some people right now who for 15 or 20 years have not been involved with any type of crime or trouble, but still have to wear it [the conviction] around their neck like they ain’t free,” Gainey said. “We have to change that.”
One option is the previously mentioned Clean Slate Act, but another is clemency which applies to both misdemeanor and felony convictions. Over the course of two hours, flanked by state representatives and experts in the field, Brandon Flood, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, walked attendees through the concept of clemency. A process which, Flood explained, was shrouded in misconceptions.
Although Flood, appointed as secretary in April 2019, admitted that in the past the clemency process wasn’t as accessible as it could be, Flood wanted attendees to understand that clemency wasn’t just a process for the privileged.
“Most people think if you don’t know a Kardashian or Trump, you don’t have a shot,” Flood explained. “But in Pennsylvania as long as your crime occurred in Pennsylvania and went through a non-federal court you’re eligible for clemency.”
In PA, one in three people has been convicted of a crime. Flood defined clemency as the process of forgiving or showing mercy to individuals convicted of a crime. This applies to misdemeanors and felonies.
Previously, the application charged a $63 fee. Now under Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the fee has been waived. The goal, Flood explained, is removing barriers between clemency and those who would most benefit.
“For some people for something that’s not a guarantee and doesn’t provide immediate relief, $63 depending on your situation, can go to a light bill and some people might not want to take a chance on it,” Flood said.
He said that since the fee was waived, more residents have applied. Other measures include shortening the application, removing questions that either didn’t serve a purpose or, upon legal review, were unconstitutional, and altering the language to make the application more easily understood.
“Before if you weren’t a lawyer and you didn’t know a lot of legal jargon you found [the application process} very jarring and you got turned off and didn’t follow through with the process,” Flood said.
Staff members from PennDot, attorneys from Duquesne University’s Civil Rights Clinic, and state troopers, among others, were on standby at the event to answer questions attendees might have about the process and or their own records.
Both Wheatly and Gainey said they’d be willing to write letters of support for applicants.
While the process itself can take up to two-and-a-half years, Flood hopes to shorten it to a year. Furthermore, the board is also in the process of creating a webinar to further educate the public and a virtual application.
While Flood’s passion about the clemency process in part comes from a place of advocacy, it’s also personal. As a young adult Flood served four years for drug charges at the age of 18 and was convicted of possession of an unlicensed firearm and selling crack cocaine leading to a nine-year stint in the department of corrections.
During that time Flood was bitten by the political bug, taking classes on public speaking and reform. Once released, he moved back to Harrisburg and work his way up through the Pennsylvania Legislature.
“They didn’t know my background, but I didn’t lead with that,” Flood recalled. “Like most people I wanted to be judged based on my work and the content of my character and not my conviction.”
After an unsuccessful first attempt and a three-year wait, he received his own pardon in March 2019, right before his appointment. Although Flood was fortunate to meet employers willing to give him a chance, he recalled instances of employers who were given pause by his past. A problem, he said, many people with convictions faced. Coupled with being able to advance professionally.
“Some people with convictions they reach that ceiling where they’re not able to go further and really maximize their potential,” Flood said. “And that’s what this is about, allowing folks to maximize their potential.”
Studies show that 87 percent of employees conduct criminal background checks for some or all job applicants. A criminal record can reduce callbacks by 50 percent.
Flood’s desire to run for public office was a factor in seeking a pardon.
With a progressive climate and new board make-up Flood hopes to give residents with conviction records a second chance. Although the process doesn’t come with guarantees, the theme of the night was it was worth trying.
“It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick so you have to have the patience and wherewithal to keep going,”Gainey said. “We can take the walk with you, if you need a letter [of support] you can get a letter. My work is only as strong as your effort.”