Oct 11, 2022 - News

Pardons coming for some Pennsylvania pot convictions

Data: Pennsylvania Board of Pardons; Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Thousands of Pennsylvanians with low-level marijuana convictions could soon receive pardons but hurdles remain for them to have their records wiped clean.

Driving the news: The state received 3,539 applications for Gov. Tom Wolf's Marijuana Pardon Project (MPP), a one-time effort to pardon people with certain non-violent cannabis criminal convictions.

  • "Our goal is to help as many people as possible with these low-level marijuana convictions get on their way to a clear record and a second chance," Celeste Trusty, secretary for the state Board of Pardons, told Axios.

Why it matters: Criminal records create roadblocks to employment, housing, and other opportunities that keep those with them — and their families — in cycles of poverty, according to a 2020 report from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

  • Pennsylvania's pardon process can typically take between four and five years and navigating the legal system can be a barrier for those eligible.

The big picture: President Joe Biden pledged last week to pardon all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

  • Biden also said he will call on governors to pardon similar state offenses.
  • At least 20 states and the District of Columbia have so far legalized marijuana for non-medical use.

Catch up fast: Under a policy directive from Gov. Wolf, the Marijuana Pardon Project accepted applications only through the month of September.

  • Eligibility was limited to those with misdemeanor convictions of possession of marijuana and/or small amount for personal use.

By the numbers: The most applications for the program came from Dauphin County (298), which includes Harrisburg, followed by York County (284).

  • Philly, the most populous county in the state, saw only 197 submissions.

Of note: Philly decriminalized marijuana in 2014 and issues citations for small amounts of possession.

How it works: The Board of Pardons will meet on Thursday to consider whether applicants have merit for a pardon and meet the requirements for the program.

  • The Board will hold public hearings from Dec. 13-16 regarding those seeking pardons and vote on whether to recommend them to the governor. Some applicants may not need to appear before the board for questioning.
  • Once Wolf receives the board's recommendations, he can approve the pardons before the end of his term in January.

Yes, but: Pardons don't eliminate criminal records.

  • Those who receive pardons must go through the courts to expunge their criminal record, a process that can take between six to 12 months and require court fees.

What they're saying: Jamie Gullen, a managing attorney at Philadelphia legal aid nonprofit Community Legal Services, attributed Philly's low application numbers to decriminalization and ongoing criminal justice diversionary programs in the city.

  • Overall, Gullen called the state's pardon program a "step forward," adding that "anything that creates automated procedures that are faster to get people relief is a good thing."
  • Gullen urged state officials to consider expanding eligibility for the program in the future.

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