Newsletter Vol 3 No 3
March 2021
** Note Our New Address: 111 S. 38th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 **
Your Help REQUESTED: Hurl Our URL!
Pre-Covid, people with criminal records accessed our services primarily through face-to-face clinics. When Covid hit, we raced to reimagine ourselves, and put as much as we could on-line, including intake: This made us immediately accessible in every neighborhood any time of the day or night, every day of the year, We girded ourselves for the flood we were sure to get... and it has yet to arrive.

Now in our 47th week of online intake, we’re averaging 20 new clients per week (see graph). While that’s a good number – over 1,000 new clients a year – this is in a city where over 100,000 low-income folks have turned their lives around since they were justice-involved and deserve to be freed from their chains.

Help us get the word out. Spread our New Client Intake URL far and wide. Threaten us with a tsunami, please! And if you’re with a non-profit serving only income-eligible clients, contact us. We will give you your own portal by which to refer your clients to us directly!
Your Help MATTERED:  Gov Acts, Signs 310 Pardons!
As February was drawing to a close, Governor Wolf signed 310 pardons, denying only 13, for an approval rate of 96%. As the press release from his office noted, “Since 2015, Gov. Wolf has signed 1,559 pardons, more than any other governor in more than 20 years.” In fact, we’re pretty sure it is the most by any PA Gov ever!

Praising Gov. Wolf for approving so many, Lauren McKenna, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, noted that this was not just a win for the individuals and their families, but for all of us: “Their success is a collective success, as these men and women continue to make positive contributions within their communities and help to fuel our state’s economy.”

“We were also very impressed,” she continued, “that you were able to review and make decisions before the end of February on the pardons that had been recommended to you in December, setting a standard that we hope all Governors will adopt and meet.”

From your lips to the Gov’s ears! Will he keep current and act on the Board’s March recommendations before it next meets in June? Stay tuned! And many thanks to the 3,469 people who signed our on-line petition urging him to make #pardonthepeople his personal priority.
MontCo DA Joins Expedited Review Program for PLSE Pardon Clients
His official website trumpets the fact that he has been a prosecutor for nearly 30 years and that he “thrives on trying cases in court.” But it also confirms his commitment to justice: “As District Attorney, Steele has been smart but tough on crime and has created and implemented innovative programs that provide a second chance to deserving offenders.”

That’s just what Montgomery County DA Kevin Steele has done by joining the list of County DA’s that are agreeing to give early reviews to pardon candidates coming from PLSE’s Pardon Project. Our project sets the standard high – no convictions anywhere, anytime for crimes of violence or sex, sentence completed and a record of successfully living in the community for at least 5 years at the time of the Board of Pardons hearing – but that only increases the odds of getting a hearing. With DA support, the Board is cutting the processing time down from 2.5 years to just over one!  

In giving his approval on March 3, DA Steele said, “It sounds like a good program that benefits our community, and we’d be pleased to help”; and he put his First Assistant, Ed McCann, in charge. Thank you, DA Steele! And thanks to him, other DAs are also considering signing on. Watch this space for updates!

To read about how PLSE clients can obtain an early DAO review, click here.
Explained: The Terrible INjustice of Justice System Costs and Fees
In the civil side of Pennsylvania’s court system, people living in low-income households are excused from paying costs and fees. Not so on the criminal side. There, defendants represented by public defenders are ALL routinely taxed thousands and thousands of dollars simply because they are “users” of the system.

We have railed against these fees before. In January PLSE released its Costs and Fees Report showing that our clients owe, on average, $1,664.88 in fees and costs per person on cases dating back eight years and more! No WAY they can pay that! PA’s State Treasurer targeted criminal court fees and costs as being contrary to justice, and urged bond rating companies to view them as negatives, not assets. And, spurred by PLSE, the PA Supreme Court is having its Civil and Criminal Procedural Rules Committees consider ending the practice of taxing low-income criminal defendants.

Now National Public Radio has put its national spotlight on this incredible injustice and how it came to be. In “Fine and Punishment,” Planet Money offers two easy-listening podcasts, one short (4 minutes), one in greater depth (21 minutes).

Please listen to at least one. Be ready for our call to action. It IS coming.......
900 Attend Criminal Records Rally Organized By Health Workers!
In June 2020, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation asked how it could become a Pardon Hub, and in July, we trained their staff. They quickly realized how they could most effectively get the word out to their community, and they invited us back to train all of their Community Health Workers.

So it was that on January 21, 2021, NKCDC’s CHWs hosted Change Can Happen: Reentry and Beyond, a virtual conversation about life after incarceration. It included personal stories from formerly incarcerated people and information they’d learned from us. Far, far surpassing all prior PLSE records, over 900 people were reached via Facebook and YouTube, most of them in communities in North Philadelphia with high incarceration rates.

NKCDC’s goal is to help individuals to know where and how to get help with cleaning up their criminal records. Its “RE-Entry Rally” was the perfect idea, combining that information with training, employment, mental health, and housing assistance for individuals struggling with the process of re-entering the community. KUDOS to NKCDC and its CHWs! You rock! 
American Bar Endowment Honors PLSE With Grant
Last July, the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board let us know about a new “funding opportunity” from the American Bar Endowment (ABE). The ABE offers insurance plans to American Bar Association members, and uses the dividends generated by its plans to fund “programs that advance the American justice system and the rule of law.” We imagined, we applied ... and we won! We received one of just 15 grants, selected from 150 proposals nationwide! The ABE is funding four “Pardon Fellows” (people with criminal records) to outreach to other individuals and communities impacted by criminal records in four rural counties – Washington, McLean, Centre, and Lancaster – where PLSE is helping to create county-wide Pardon Projects.

How the ABE describes our work is worth reading -- it’s in the postscript at the end of this newsletter. Thank you, American Bar Endowment, for the recognition, the honor, and the funding! And be sure watch this space for developments...
On The Move!
Over the past few years, PLSE has grown, big time. We’ve gotten so big, in fact, that we outgrew our space at the Friends Center. We are now happily relocated to the Newman Center, 111 South 38th Street (19104), on the campus of the Church of Saint Agatha – Saint James, able to work very closely with the Newman Clubs of both Penn and Drexel Universities as well as the Church community.

In bidding us farewell, Chris Mohr, the Friends Center ED, wrote: “It has been great to see PLSE grow from a one-person organization to what it is today. Best wishes for the important work you do.” Thank you, Chris, and all at the Center who supported and encouraged us every step along the way!
This Month’s Tip AND a Shout Out! Correcting an Error in your Pardon Application
Spacing came out wrong. Font was too small. Supplemental materials didn’t copy/scan well. OPN was wrong. What can you do? 

Last month, one of our Pardon Coaches (a partner in a law firm – yes, it happens to them too!) noticed an error: “Unfortunately, page three of the application contained a typo concerning [the applicant’s] second incident date. We only caught the typo after I mailed the application. [His] second incident occurred in 1993, not 2013.”

This is actually a MAJOR error! The Board’s Secretary is developing new, accelerated tracks that would speed review and hearings for those whose crimes were committed more than 20 years ago. Uncorrected, the error could have delayed the client for over a year.

What did the Coach do? He emailed BOP Secretary Flood and alerted him to the mistake! The Secretary shared it with his staff and, within 40 minutes – no, seriously! within 40 minutes!!! – BOP Administrative Assistant Amy Daniels had written back: “I will take care of this for you. Thanks for letting us know!” 

Usually this column is about tips for success. THIS time it is an appreciation: THANK YOU, AMY, AND ALL BOP STAFF FOR TRANSFORMING THE PARDON PROCESS, from part of the punishment system to a key element of restorative justice!!
Notes from our Clients and Supporters
The challenges we face – changing how society views criminal records, and helping as many people as possible escape those chains– are daunting indeed. We are sustained not just by the financial contributions we receive, but by your words of encouragement and support. Here are a few from this past month.  THANK YOU FOR URGING US ON!!!

  • “Attached is the pdf copy of my pardon application. thank each of you for your kind services throughout the process. My prayers are for a successful pardon this coming year. And it will be a most rewarding blessing from friends like you who supported me all this way. Thank you.” –M.D., Claymont, DE
  • “I just read the PLSE newsletter and want to let you know how impressed I am with the growth and power of the organization. Well done!” –Bob S., Hawley, PA
  • “Loved the February newsletter! My reading group was on the chapter called "Imprisonment and Punishment" in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Wilkinson and Pickett. The points Wilkinson and Pickett touch on in the chapter are made much clearer by the [PA Treasurer’s] press release and your report [about costs and fees] linked in your newsletter.” -Sherry L., Denmark, WI  
Three Ways You Can Help:

  1. Listen to the NPR “Fines and Punishment” podcast on the injustice of justice system costs and fees.
  2. Share our online intake URL with people and organizations who need help erasing criminal records:
  3. Contribute! Yep, with the surge of new clients and coaches, we will need to bring on more hard-working staff.  

Stay energized, optimistic and healthy,
Tobey Oxholm
Executive Director
Postscript - How the ABE describes PLSE’s Pardon Fellows program:
"The collateral consequences of criminal records are devastating and directly contribute to intergenerational poverty. The ABA has confirmed that, nationwide, a past conviction history raises well over 40,000 barriers to employment, education, housing, loan borrowing, professional licensing, voting among numerous other post-punishment punishments. Pennsylvania has long had one of the highest incarceration rates in the county, but since 2019, it has been leading the country in pardon reform, reducing the time it takes, eliminating costs, and changing the perception of a pardon as a remedy only available to those who are rich, white and connected. With the assistance of an ABE Opportunity Grant, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity will begin to create a network of “pardon fellows” with lived criminal-justice system experience to reach out to, educate and coach people in rural areas as they seek the second chance that only a pardon can provide. With these efforts, pardons can begin to repair the legacy of mass incarceration, creating a pathway to better jobs, housing, education, and credit, thus improving the lives of individuals, families, and communities."
Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity
1501 Cherry Street Philadelphia, PA 19102
(267) 519-5323