Ohio governor establishes expedited pardon process

On December 3, Governor Mike DeWine announced an initiative that promises to revive the pardon power in Ohio and bring much-needed relief from collateral consequences to many hundreds of deserving individuals convicted over the years in that state.  The Expedited Pardon Project, a collaboration between the Governor’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Policy Center at Ohio State University and the Reentry Clinic at The University of Akron School of Law, aspires to expedite the process by which people apply for a pardon under Ohio’s laws by enlisting law students to assist in preparing pardon applications.  Once petitions are filed, the formal pardon process prescribed by statute will be collapsed into a period of months, with final action by the governor in less than a year.

This initiative could elevate Ohio into the small group of states that have productive and regular pardon programs, including states like Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia and South Carolina, where duly constituted pardon boards (some entirely independent of the governor) preside over programs that issue hundreds of pardons every year, granting relief to a high percentage of individuals that apply.  Another handful of states, including Arkansas, Nebraska, and Nevada, have somewhat smaller pardon programs but still issue between 50 and 100 grants each year.  With this expedited initiative, Ohio could quickly join their ranks, supplementing the state’s limited judicial sealing and certificate laws in furthering the goals of restoration and reintegration.  It could also make the Ohio pardon process one of the most efficient in the nation.

As explained on the Project’s website, the Ohio Department of Corrections will conduct background investigations of applications referred by the Project, and the Parole Board will then hold a hearing for each applicant, during which victims, judges and prosecutors involved with his or her case can offer their thoughts. The Parole Board will then vote the same day about whether to recommend clemency to the governor.  See Jeremy Pelzer, Gov. Mike DeWine creates streamlined pardon process to help Ohio offenders, Cleveland.com, Dec. 3, 2019, https://www.cleveland.com/open/2019/12/gov-mike-dewine-creates-streamlined-pardon-process-to-help-ohio-ex-offenders.html.  The expedited process is expected to require only six months from filing the application to a decision by the governor.

Standards for consideration of pardon applications are set forth in a document posted on the Project website, and are described as “minimum requirements” that all applicants must meet.  By the standards of most state pardon programs, and those applied to presidential pardons, these standards are quite rigorous.  To begin with, the eligibility waiting period is on the long side (ten conviction-free years following completion of sentence, compared to the five years following prison release for a presidential pardon), applicants must have a “compelling need” for a pardon and a record of community service, and they must have paid all court debt including restitution.  Some offenses make a person ineligible for expedited consideration, including domestic violence and certain violent or sexual offenses.

While the Ohio Supreme Court held in 2015 that Ohio pardons provide “only forgiveness, not forgetfulness,” the governor indicated that he may seek legislation to seal or expunge the record of a pardoned case.

We hope to publish more about this promising new program in the months ahead.  At this point, we would suggest that consideration be given at an early date to relaxing and/or clarifying some of what seem unduly strict eligibility requirements, notably the lengthy eligibility waiting period and the requirement that all court debt be paid before a pardon applicant will be accepted into the program.  These requirements, along with the requirement of community service, may lead to an applicant pool of people who have already successfully reintegrated into the community, making pardon more of a reward for rehabilitation than an aid to it.  Indeed, those responsible for administering the program may find that there is a certain tension between some of these requirements and a “compelling need” for pardon.  In any case, a desire for forgiveness and to “put the past behind” has historically been sufficient reason for a presidential pardon, and we hope it will be sufficient for this program as well.  We also hope that waivers may be granted not just from the requirement that court debt be paid, but also from the categorical offense ineligibility, particularly when many years have done by since the conviction occurred.