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United Way of Lancaster County


Pardon clinics open opportunities for second chances

Tanedia Thomas, right, speaks about applying for a pardon as Mary Hoskins, executive director of Zion Community Services, looks on during a celebration at In the Light Ministries in Lancaster on Friday, April 26, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

“Thank you all for taking the first steps,” Mary Hoskins said to the men and women gathered with their loved ones at In the Light Ministries.

Hoskins is the executive director of Zion Community Services. It has been conducting free weekly pardon clinics in Lancaster County, launching them in January at an event hosted in partnership with state Rep Ismail Smith-Wade-El’s office.

The initiative, the Pardon Project of Lancaster County, is part of a statewide network. Through it, pro bono attorneys and pardon coaches work with clients to prepare applications for submission to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

“I applaud you,” Michael Goldberg, an attorney with Mid Penn Legal Services, told the pardon applicants. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Just completing the applications is lengthy and challenging, typically requiring multiple meetings over a period of weeks or months to flesh out a case and compile the necessary documents. Hence Hoskins’ pride as she welcomed members of the first cohort to a celebration recognizing the completion of their applications.

The program culminated with eight individuals signing their forms; another two were unable to attend.

“This group is special,” Hoskins said. They are the first wave, she said, but there will be “many, many more to come.”

An estimated 70 million to 100 million Americans, disproportionately those from poor and non-White communities, have criminal records, jeopardizing their access to jobs, housing, education and bank credit.

“(W)ith nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords, and three in five colleges using background checks, any record no matter how old or minor can put the basics of life permanently out of reach,” Nila Bala, of the R Street Institute, and Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress wrote in a March 2020 opinion piece.

The pardon clinic team includes, from left, coaches Darren Yorkman, Patricia Maila, Darren’s father Wendell Yorkman and attorney Lisa Wolf. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

In response, advocates have successfully lobbied dozens of states to liberalize their policies on pardons and expungement of criminal records. Last year, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed into law “Clean Slate 3.0,” which provides for expungement when a full a pardon has been obtained.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Wendell Yorkman, a pastor at In the Light Ministries and one of Zion’s pardon coaches.

Darnell Brown signs his pardon application as attorney Lisa Wolf, left, and Zion Community Services Executive Director Mary Hoskins look on. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Clinic participants spoke emotionally of spending years, even decades, under the cloud of their criminal record, and the liberation that would come with clearing it.

Tanedia Thomas said she had felt she would carry the burden of her record the rest of her life, and struggled to allow herself a glimmer of hope. But Hoskins’ team changed that, she said: “You all gave the feeling of compassion.”

Amanda Saez said she looks forward to buying a house for herself and her children. Sophia Jones said her record has been an obstacle for more than 20 years, shutting her out of jobs and other opportunities.

It’s hard to imagine being cleared of it, she said: “Is this for real? … Is this really going to happen?”

Mary Hoskins

Previously, Hoskins worked for 12 years on Pennsylvania’s Workforce Development Board. She said she became increasingly frustrated with the thousands of barriers faced by justice-involved individuals; to the point that she felt she had no choice but to step away.

Her role at Zion Community Services, she said, “has been the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done.”

The applicants still have a long road ahead of them, she cautioned. Their applications must be reviewed by the Pardon Board and other stakeholders in the justice system. The board votes on whether to grant them a hearing; and once it takes place, on whether to grant a pardon. The whole process can easily take three years, Hoskins said.

“We’re going to walk with you every step of the way,” she pledged.