Release from custody and supervision should bring relief! After release, returning citizens regain their freedom, reunite with friends and family, and start working towards their life goals. However, what should be a small setback for “correction” becomes, for many, a long-lasting punishment. This is due to the secondary consequences of a criminal record. 

The American Bar Association says criminal records nationwide can raise over 40,000 barriers for returning citizens. It may be hard to get a job, go back to school, or get stable housing. It may be hard to get loans and professional licenses. Some returning citizens may not be able to vote. Returning citizens can also face judgment from others. These hardships can lead to almost complete exclusion from society. Also, the connection between poverty and criminal records is clear. It’s no wonder returning citizens are at higher risk of multiple problems including mental health issues, substance use issues, and self-harm/suicide.  

Cleaning Up Criminal Records 

Thankfully, there is reason for hope. Criminal records do not have to last forever. Judges can erase charges that were not proven and erase convictions for crimes that have been pardoned by the governor. In some states, pardons are rare. However, since 2019, Pennsylvania has been a leader in pardon reform. In his last two terms, Gov. Tom Wolf pardoned over 2,500 people and helped set up a fast-track for pardoning low-level cannabis-related crimes.  

The five-member Pennsylvania Board of Pardons (BOP) reviews all pardon applications. It is chaired by the lieutenant governor. Recently, the BOP recommended more than 80 percent of applications they hear for pardons. Applicants with a drug offense, no violent crimes, and who had been crime-free for 10 or more years were even more likely to be recommended for a pardon. The BOP recommended a pardon over 90 percent of the time for these cases.   

In Pennsylvania, a pardon “blots out the very existence of [one’s] guilt, so that, in the eye of the law, he is thereafter as innocent as if he had never committed the offense.” That means no more checking the box. Ever. 

Applications are available online. They are short and written in plain English. They are free to submit. No lawyer is required to submit them. All applicants have to do is download the application, fill it out, and sign it. They attach their criminal record. They also attach documents that help them show the positive changes they’ve made in their lives. Then they mail their application to the BOP. After that, a completely new start is available. It just takes one interview with a parole officer, a hearing before the BOP, and the stroke of the governor’s pen. 

Additional Information  

For more information on applying for pardons and cleaning up criminal records, visit Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity.  


Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, JD, PhD, DBHIDS Behavioral Health and Justice Division
Adam Stout, MPM, DBHIDS Planning and Innovation Division
Carl Oxholm III, JD, MPP, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity 

About the Authors

Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, JD, PhD  is a clinical-forensic psychologist. He works with DBHIDS serving individuals who have behavioral health issues that have led to involvement in the criminal justice system.

Adam Stout, MPM is a government affairs professional with the DBHIDS’ Planning and Innovation Division. His work primarily revolves around developing behavioral health literacy and policy for the Department, and interfacing with local elected officials.

Attorney Tobey Oxholm III, JD, MPP  is a long-time (44-year) advocate for pro bono (volunteer) legal services to low-income individuals. He has helped to create several nationally-recognized pro bono projects. The Pardon Project is his most recent – and the only one (so far) in the country.