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Lehigh County News

The Pardon Project of Lehigh County works to wipe clean criminal records

Lehigh County
The Pardon Project of Lehigh County assists those with past criminal records get them expunged, opening door to reenter society

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Lehigh County is encouraged about its program to help county residents with criminal records who have paid their debt to society find work or pursue education.

County Chief Public Defender Kimberly Makoul outlined the county’s Pardon Project at a meeting of County Commissioners' Courts and Corrections Committee on Wednesday.

The Pardon Project is designed to help low-income residents who pleaded guilty to nonviolent crimes and completed their sentences at least five years ago to eventually have their records expunged.

The goal of the county’s Pardon Project, Makoul said, is to help people have a better chance of rebuilding their lives minus the burden of their criminal past holding them back.

“One of the things missing is, those people might be doing well and hopefully successful in their supervision,” she said. “But the problem is the collateral consequences.

“Let’s say five years go by and their supervision is done. But they haven’t been able to fully integrate into society because they’re prevented from getting a job they may be qualified for or prevented from going to school for licensing.”

“I wanted to do it here (in this office) because I believe in this holistic approach to public defense for helping people."
Kimberly Makoul, Chief Public Defender, Lehigh County

About 78 million Americans have criminal records. The 2023 National Survey of People with Records found that 1 in 2 people with old convictions cited difficulties in finding a job, maintaining employment or making a living.

Thousands of laws nationwide limit access to licenses or employment opportunities for those with criminal records.

In some states, people with convictions can’t work as barbers, in airports or schools, in government or as Uber or Lyft drivers. The laws contribute to a 67% recidivism rate within three years.

A bright idea

The Pardon Project is designed to address that problem.

Following receipt of an application from a candidate, a person’s case will be reviewed by a pardon coordinator and the district attorney’s office.

Once approved, an individual will be paired with a pardon coach to create an application for a pardon. A Board of Pardons will review the application and, if it recommends a pardon, it will be forwarded to the governor’s office for review.

“I think this is a really bright approach.”
Lehigh County Commissioner Jon Irons

“I think this is a really bright approach,” Commissioner Jon Irons said.

Twenty-four of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties offer Pardon Project programs, while seven others are in development.

Last year, nearly 140 pardons were granted by Gov. Josh Shapiro from the nearly 400 applications he received from the Board of Pardons.

The Pardon Program can in many ways affect the worker shortage currently in many occupations, Makoul said.

“These convictions could prevent them from going into, say, a nursing program in school and getting a license,” she said.

“These are people who paid back to society. It would be a shame if these people with skills and abilities aren’t allowed to start a career.”

'Public defense helping people'

To help facilitate the program, the county’s Pardon Project currently employs a part-time pardon coordinator in the Public Defender’s Office.

Makoul said the Pardon Project currently has 50 people who have registered.

“I wanted to do it here [in the Public Defender's office] because I believe in this holistic approach to public defense for helping people."
Lehigh County Chief Public Defender Kimberly Makoul

Applicants who don’t qualify will be directed to the county bar association for possible legal representation.

While other counties throughout the state have pardon projects, Lehigh County is the first in Pennsylvania to have the Pardon Project integrated into its Public Defender’s Office.

“I wanted to do it here [in this office] because I believe in this holistic approach to public defense for helping people,” Makoul said.

The Public Defender’s Office will hold its next Community Outreach Day from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. May 11 at 617 W. Walnut St., Allentown.

The public will have the opportunity to get free legal advice and access a food bank and clothing drive.

More information on the Pardon Project and Community Outreach Day can be found at lehighcounty.org.