York County near top of list for marijuana pardon applications

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

A mom wants to chaperone her child's field trip, but is denied because she has a criminal record.

A family's application for an apartment is turned down because dad has a conviction on his record.

A man is applies for new job, but is turned down for the same reason.

These are the types of scenarios that led to the PA Marijuana Pardon Project, in which Pennsylvanians convicted of low-level, nonviolent marijuana convictions could apply to have them taken off their records.

During the application period in September, just over 3,500 Pennsylvanians applied to find out if their record could be cleared of such convictions. With 284 applications, York County accounted for the second-most applicants among the state's 67 counties, just shy of Dauphin County's 298.

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Celeste Trusty, secretary for the state Board of Pardons, said it's heartening to see so many applicants.

“There’s a lot more people who could have applied," Trusty said. "We had a short application window, but having that many people apply in a 30-day period is very encouraging."

Trusty noted that the state received applications from all but one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

"That’s really encouraging," she said. "It shows that the message was getting out, but also that we’re doing the right thing because people commonwealth-wide are being held back because of these convictions.”

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Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman cited the political reality that marijuana legalization appears a long way off in developing the pardon program to help those low-level offenders.

Christina Kauffman, Fetterman's chief of staff, said the administration was pleased with the number of people who applied during such a short window of time.

“We know that each one of these applications potentially represents a person whose life has been held up in different ways because they did something that most of us in Pennsylvania don’t even think should be illegal,” Kauffman said. “Most of us in the United States don’t think this should be illegal.”

Kauffman said these types of offenses shouldn't hold people back when they want to move forward in their lives.

“We know that for each one of these people who’ve applied that they have most likely faced some pretty big obstacles that are preventing them from living their best lives,” Kauffman said. “By pardoning these folks, you give them a chance to be unfettered with where they live, their activities in terms of volunteering at their kids’ schools and a greater earning potential.”

The administration got the word out about the pardon program through daily social media posts in September. A direct mailer was sent to thousands of people that the state thought might qualify for the program.

While they were pleased with the number of applicants, Kauffman said she believes there are many more who could have applied.

“We know that we are just scraping the top in terms of possibilities. Every year, according to Pennsylvania State Police data, there are over 20,000 people who are arrested in Pennsylvania for marijuana related offenses,” Kauffman said.

But Kauffman noted that a number of people didn't qualify for this program because of other offenses, such as a DUI conviction, on their record.

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The next step for these applicants begins Thursday when the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons will consider which applications move forward to the public hearing phase of the process. Those public hearings would take place Dec. 13-16, at which point the board will recommend applicants to the governor for pardon.

The pardon program came as a result of a listening tour Fetterman did in 2019. He visited all 67 Pennsylvania counties to talk about the marijuana issue.

"The overwhelming response is that people wanted our legislature to move on adult-use marijuana legalization and they haven’t. Our legislature has not responded," Trusty said. "They have not moved in order to legalize marijuana for adult use. And so, this is what the governor is able to do and this is what the lieutenant governor is able to do to answer that call."

The PA Marijuana Pardon Project is a one-time offering from the current administration, Trusty said. Since both Wolf and Fetterman will be leaving office in January, it would be up to future administrations to continue to offer the program unless legalization is passed.

“We have to hope that future administrations will see the success and see the need for this and continue to do it," Trusty said. "So, we hope that future administrations will build upon this and even possibly expand it, just realizing that so many people are being held back unnecessarily.”

If anyone going through the pardon process through the PA Marijuana Pardon Project would like to tell their story about the process, are pardoned because of the process or want to share any difficulties they may have had because of prior small marijuana convictions, contact reporter Anthony Maenza at amaenza@yorkdispatch.com.