Newsletter Vol 2 No 10
December 2020
3,000+ Call On Gov Wolf To Do The Right Thing
“We know you are a good man. You end up signing almost every single pardon. But you are taking so, so, so long, when it should take you no time at all. Please hear our call – now raised by more than three thousand voices. Answer our petition. Do what you know is right. Light the candle of hope.”  

That’s the way that Rev. Dr. Michelle Simmons ended her December letter to Governor Wolf - her third in four months - sent during this season of light. It urged him to speed up how quickly he reads and signs pardon applications. This time, though, she included the petition that had been signed by over 3,000 people in just three weeks:
Dear Governor Wolf:
I join with the Pardon Project Steering Committee in calling on you to:
  1. Sign the hundreds of pardons that have been sitting on your desk for so many months, and give them and their families, finally, the Second Chance that they have earned, and
  2. Include signing pardons in the forefront of your duties so that never again will anyone have to wait more than 30 days for you, or any Governor, to act. 
Lt. Governor Fetterman, Attorney General Shapiro, the rest of the Board of Pardons, and Board Secretary Flood have all been doing a wonderful job in opening up and speeding up the pardon process. But all the hope that their good works generate is extinguished when the pardons reach the Governor’s Office. All that he needs to do is sign his name, in the quiet of his office or at home, any day of the week . . .

Let’s hope that the third time’s the charm. Keep your fingers crossed. We’ll let you know if, this time, he answers the Rev and the Steering Committee….
Judge Karen Simmons Honored With Pollak Award
The Honorable Louis Pollak – attorney, Dean of both Yale and Penn Law Schools, then Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1978-2012) – was, by anyone’s account, a remarkable jurist who demonstrated in a great many ways his commitment to the greater good. To honor his memory and to highlight his commitment to Equal Justice Under Law, the Public Interest Section of the Philadelphia Bar Association created an annual award in his memory, to recognize a member of the judiciary who best exemplified what it really means to be a Judge – not just in the way s/he conducted their judicial duties, demonstrating fairness to all regardless of ability to pay, but in their exemplary efforts to promote justice throughout our society.   

This year’s recipient of the Louis H. Pollak Award for exemplary service is the Honorable Karen Yvette Simmons, Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and Vice Chair of the PLSE Board of Directors.  We know, first hand, how much time, thought, and effort she invests in us – and we’re not the only cause she supports! We could not be more thankful for her service. Read here the inspiring words of the presentation and her acceptance. Congratulations, Judge Simmons!
Honoring PLSE: Include Us In Your Year-End Giving
PLSE has two staff attorneys and one paralegal. A grant from the IOLTA Board is paying for our paralegal; a grant from the Oak Foundation is paying for one attorney. Tax-deductible contributions from individuals like you pay for our second attorney. You know the good we do (if not, read on!). You can help. 

Make a gift to PLSE today by clicking here. Thank you!  
Staff Attorney Taylor Pacheco Heads “Phenomenal” Bar Association Panel
Race is never easy to talk about, but if we are intent about our fight for true equity, it is something we must set our hearts and minds to doing with honesty and sincerity. The Philadelphia Bar Association hosted its annual Public Interest Law Day on Thursday, December 3 via WebCast, bringing together the dynamic public interest community for a day of panels on wide-ranging and timely topics, including the closing plenary, Race at the Center of the Struggle for Social Justice: How Can Public Interest Organizations Hold Institutions and Themselves Accountable for Valuing Black Lives.  
Moderated by our very own staff attorney, Taylor Pacheco, the panel featured Keir Bradford-Grey, Chief Defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Debby Freedman, Executive Director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Rachel Lopez, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University, and Reginald Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. With over 80 attorneys attending, it was called “phenomenal” and “a lively and forthright discussion” on the ways that public interest organizations struggle and sometimes fail to actively challenge white supremacy in their work, and how they can move forward doing better to not only recognize but prioritize their Black clients’ unique experiences. One leading public interest advocate, Jamie Gullen at CLS, wrote Taylor: “Great presenters of course, but your thoughtful moderation and organization of the program made it one of the best I have seen!” Well done, Taylor!
Criminal Lawyers Spotlight “Leading Edge” Pardon Reform in PA
“Covid-19 has brought to the fore many aspects of life that most of us had not previously thought much about – like who are “essential workers,” and how increasingly at-risk we humans are from globally-spread viruses. The coronavirus has also focused attention on criminal history records. That’s because we need more health care workers, more childcare workers, more elder care workers – jobs that are unattainable for those with criminal records.” 

So begins a special article on pardons in the Winter edition of For the Defense– the quarterly magazine of the Harrisburg-based, 600+ member Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. The article shares vignettes of a few pardon applicants while highlighting the country-leading reforms to the pardons system that have been made in Pennsylvania. Michael Winters, the magazine’s Editor at Large, called it “extremely relevant and valuable to our membership,” while one of its past presidents, Philip Geso, wrote “Your thoughtful and practical article certainly humanizes the pardon process and will make a difference with our readers who are representing those facing pardon issues especially in light of the recent high profile federal pardons.” 

PACDL will be hosting at least one Pardons in PA CLE Program in the spring. Check PLSE’s Events page for date and time.
ACLU Issues Report Challenging Imposition of Court Costs on Indigent Defendants
In civil lawsuits, someone whose household income is less than 200% of the poverty line is not made to pay fees and costs. In criminal cases, low-income defendants are assigned a free attorney (a Public Defender). But few know that the courts impose hundreds and thousands of dollars of fees and costs on all defendants – poor and rich alike – not as part of the punishment imposed by the judge, but just as a cost of being a defendant.

On December 18, 2020, the ACLU issued its report on a ten-year study they had done on fines, costs and restitution in Pennsylvania. Among other things, it finds that “most of the fines, costs, and restitution imposed in Pennsylvania go uncollected, even after a decade.” Calling costs “taxes placed on criminal defendants to generate revenue, which have a strikingly disproportionate impact on indigent defendants,” the report notes that “[n]ot only is this debt obligation a stressor in and of itself—and a barrier to reintegration, particularly for individuals leaving prison—its existence can trigger numerous collateral and legal consequences, including incarceration, which makes it more difficult to leave the criminal justice system behind and move forward with life.” The full report can be found here

Because unpaid costs can prevent someone from obtaining a pardon, PLSE has been conducting its own review of costs still owed by our clients who have obtained expungements. We’ve looked at 389 clients so far, and they “owe” Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas a total of $709,697 – an average of $1,824 each – a significant percentage of which is older than 20 years. And you know – everyone knows – they don’t have the money to pay that “debt”.

Why are these processing costs – debts that are so stale as to be uncollectible as a matter of law – still being used to keep our clients down? Watch this space for updates.
FINALLY!!!! PLSE Returns To The Community
Last March, Covid-19 put an immediate and dramatic “STOP!” to the Criminal Records Clinics that PLSE was holding in an expanding number of low-income neighborhoods.  We reorganized our efforts, put videos and other instructional information online, and began holding virtual “walk-ins” for 1:1 client service. But we knew that this wasn’t reaching those who do not have access to high-quality, dependable internet – a huge number of Philadelphians who need our service.

So it was with incredible excitement that we returned to the neighborhood on November 14 with law student volunteers from Penn Law. Setting up tents and space heaters, offering hand sanitizer, using “hot spots” and wearing masks, we offered information and advice to those who showed up for the People’s Emergency Center Food Pantry. Not long after, we partnered with Philadelphia FIGHT/Institute for Community Justice in a second model: we “beamed” into a computer lab, where participants were socially-distanced and assisted on-site by PLSE’s Program Manager, Patrick Keough. Both models proved to be very successful.
On January 30, PLSE will be in North Philadelphia under patio heaters in a church parking lot, joined by Temple Law students in the National Lawyers Guild. And we’re working with Drexel Law to set up something in the Mantua community once they return from break.

THIS is the kind of innovation that your contributions are making possible. THANK YOU to our volunteers and our contributors!
This Month's Tip
Once your pardon application has been accepted by the Board of Pardons, how do you go about adding more information? Recently, we received this advice from Board Secretary Brandon Flood:

To clarify, we actually encourage that supplemental information be sent via email rather than in hardcopy form (at least I do), as it makes it easier for us to upload it to the applicant’s electronic file…. Please let applicants know that they can email such information to my attention directly.
Brandon J. Flood | Secretary
Pennsylvania Board of Pardons
Three Ways You Can Help:

  1. Make a year-end contribution to PLSE and help us get back out into the communities that need us.
  2. Read the ACLU’s Report on Court Fees and be ready when we ask you for your support when we call on the Courts and the City to end taxing low-income defendants
  3. Have a Happy New Year and make "Helping PLSE" one of your Resolutions!! 
Stay energized, optimistic and healthy,
Tobey Oxholm
Executive Director
Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity
1501 Cherry Street Philadelphia, PA 19102
(267) 519-5323