State Senator Judy Schwank and Berks County District Attorney John Adams announced the beginning of the Pardon Project of Berks County in downtown Reading Monday morning at Berks Connections/ Pretrial Services.
Pardon Projects pair individuals seeking a pardon for a past crime with a pardon coach. Pardon coaches help applicants tell their stories and walk them through the application process free of charge. Anyone looking to volunteer can become a pardon coach by attending a training session.
Since 2019, eight out of 10 applicants have received a hearing before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. Governor Tom Wolf approves over 95% of applications recommended by the board.
“Pardon Project has the potential to be a game-changer in Berks County,” Schwank said. “As soon as I learned about the possibility of implementing something like this here in our community, I knew it could make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. Having a record can make it difficult for people who just want to move on with their lives to land a job or receive the occupational license they need. Pardon Project removes the unnecessary barriers to success people face and rewards them for doing the right thing.”
Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity Pardon Project Director Tobey Oxholm has been working to establish projects in counties across Pennsylvania. Oxholm contacted Schwank’s office in the Spring of 2021 about convening a Pardon Project presentation for key community groups and elected officials in Berks County. The presentation took place in early June. Oxholm has applauded how quickly the Berks County Pardon Project steering committee got up to speed.
“Over the past year, I have been working in a dozen counties across Pennsylvania to help set up Pardon Projects,” said Oxholm. “None, not one, has moved as quickly from idea to action as the one in Berks County. What’s been achieved here in record time shows the rest of the state just what is possible when a whole community comes together in common cause to help their own. I applaud Senator Schwank and all who have been working with her to make this day possible.”
Oxholm also noted that only 29 people living in Berks County submitted applications for pardon review last year.
Adams was a leading member of the steering committee tasked with establishing Pardon Project and played a crucial role in determining the eligibility guidelines for applicants.
“The burden of a criminal record can handicap individuals from obtaining employment, professional licenses, housing and many other things,” Adams said. “Pardon Project will assist people who have established a proven track record as law-abiding, productive members of our community an opportunity to obtain relief from the burden of a criminal record. Pardon Project will help those candidates apply for a pardon from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardon if they can demonstrate true remorse and change. This will be beneficial not only to the individuals seeking a pardon but in the long run, will benefit our entire community.”
Pardon Project will be overseen by Berks Connections/ Pretrial Services. The program will launch initially with a selected group of participants and pardon coaches to pilot the program and assure the process runs smoothly. As the program grows, BCPS will work with non-profits, colleges, universities, churches and other institutions to establish pardon hubs throughout Berks County.
“We have witnessed firsthand how someone’s criminal history can hinder their success long after they have completed their sentence,” said Nicole Schnovel, Co-Executive Director of BCPS. “BCPS is thrilled to coordinate the efforts of the Pardon Project of Berks County and serve as the official Pardon Hub. It a natural extension of our Life Improvement Business and we look forward to being able to offer this service to the community!”
BCPS provides pretrial services and programs for individuals re-entering society and has been leading the effort to implement a Pardon Project in Berks County since Oxholm’s presentation in June.
Brandon Flood, who was appointed as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons in 2019, knows first-hand how a criminal record can hinder success. Flood had his own prior conviction forgiven by the board and Gov. Wolf just weeks before taking the position. Flood spoke at the event and touted the promises of the project.
“Applying for a pardon in Pennsylvania is easier than it’s ever been,” Flood said. “The Berks County Pardon Project will in essence serve as an extension of our office by ensuring that prospective pardon applicants in Berks County are provided with the tools and resources that they need in order to confidently navigate the executive clemency process. The fine residents of Berks County have both Senator Schwank and the project coordinators to thank for this vitally important development.”
Although lawyers are not needed to apply for a pardon, they often volunteer as pardon coaches. The Berks County Bar Association coordinated the first Berks County pardon coach training session and contacted local lawyers about participating.
“Our members are proud to volunteer their skills for this collaborative effort to remove barriers blocking far too many from better jobs and from contributing to our community,” said Bar Association President Justin D. Bodor. “Attorneys are uniquely qualified to help balance the scales for individuals who have earned a second chance. And the Bar Association is truly grateful for the unwavering support and guidance provided by Sen. Schwank and District Attorney Adams as we embark on this new initiative together.”
It’s not just attorneys that recognize the potential impact a pardon can have on someone’s life. Magisterial District Judge Tonya Butler has voiced support for Pardon Project and served as a member of the steering committee.
“The Pardon Project of Berks County represents hope and opportunity for these members of our society who will no longer be held back due to a criminal record,” said Butler. “In my experience, many ex-offenders have already made positive impacts in our community and need to be able to realize their full potential.”
As Pardon Project gets up and running, eventually, BCPS will look to help establish pardon hubs throughout Berks County. Pardon hubs increase access to pardon information and coaches. Reading Area Community College is one local institution that has express interest in becoming a pardon hub.
“Education can be a gateway to social and economic mobility,” said Dr. Susan Looney, President of RACC. “Providing access, opportunity, excellence and hope to those willing to commit to a fresh start is a critical and essential community investment strategy.”
Individuals who would like to be paired with a pardon coach are encouraged to contact BCPS at PardonMeBerks@bcpsreentry.org. Individuals who are interested in volunteering as pardon coaches can contact BCPS at BerksPardonCoach@bcpsreentry.org.