February 2024 — The opportunity to work on a pro bono project for the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) came at the perfect time for Penn State Dickinson Law student Jamesha Caldwell ’25. During her first few weeks of classes as a 1L, Caldwell felt anxious about the many injustices she learned about in her civil and criminal procedure classes.

“It was very hard to sit there and hear, ‘That is just how the system works.’ You feel like you do not have the ability to engage in real, tangible, and meaningful opportunities to change things because you are a first-year law student,” said Caldwell.

That was when she discovered the Pardon Project, PLSE’s statewide effort to assist people with criminal records in filling out the paperwork needed to request a pardon. Dickinson Law has partnered with the project for several years.

The project offered Caldwell a way to make the direct impact she desired. She became a pardon coach, working with clients to help them fill out their applications. She is now one of two student managers in the program, overseeing other student pardon coaches along with Jaden Harding ’24.

Dickinson Law students supported more than 20 applications last semester, and the project is growing across the state. On February 15, Dickinson Law hosted an event with Mooney Law, Abom & Kutulakis, and the Cumberland County Bar Association, which plans to launch a Pardon Project, to highlight the importance of pardons and train people to become coaches.

According to PLSE, one of every three adults in the United States has a criminal record, which can be erased with a pardon from the governor. Since 2019, Pennsylvania governors have issued more than 2,000 pardons, and almost 90 percent of applications to the Board of Pardons are approved.

Tobey Oxholm, director of the Pardon Project, attended the event. He said PLS works with students at more than half a dozen law schools in Pennsylvania, and the benefits of those partnerships flow both ways. “Experiential learning is permanent learning,” said Oxholm. “It is not books, it is not an exam. It is the kind of stuff where students actually meet somebody. They have to cross that divide of race, sex, or age. And when the person does that, so many times the client is blown away because they have never had somebody in their corner before.”

A project well-suited to law students

Emeritus Dean Gary S. Gildin, professor of law and Hon. G. Thomas and Anne G. Miller Chair in Advocacy, looks for opportunities for students to offer pro bono and legal aid in his position as director of Dickinson Law’s Center for Public Interest Law and Advocacy. During the early days of COVID, in-person options became impossible. The Pardon Project presented an attractive alternative since students could meet with the Philadelphia-area clients, which PLSE screens in advance, via phone or Zoom.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to relaunch our public interest work,” said Gildin. “The second beauty of it is that first-year students as well as second- and third-year students can participate because you are really just trying to help the person tell their story.”

PLSE trains students who want to get involved, then pairs them with an applicant. “Each student gets assigned one application. The managers make sure all of the applications go through in a timely manner,” said Harding, who became involved with the project as a 1L. “This gets you in the community working with real people on real issues. I came to Dickinson Law because it has a wonderful background in public interest by providing projects like this.”

Last fall, Gildin enlisted John Frommer ’84 to assist the student managers. Frommer answers questions about processes and steps in when students have difficulty contacting a client or need advice.

“One lesson I think lawyers should learn early on is that there is no job too big or too small for you. Something I like about the Pardon Project is that the law students are actually typing up the applications, filling out the fill-in boxes, writing out all the answers, and not delegating. There is no helper here to do those things, and I think that is a valuable lesson for them,” said Frommer.

Panelists discuss Pardon Project and positive signs for the future

The Pardon Project could see even more interest following the recent event. Held at Dickinson Law’s Apfelbaum Family Courtroom and Auditorium, it included a screening of the short documentary Pardon Me, filmmaker Shuja Moore’s moving profile of people seeking pardons that could change their lives. Moore understands the issue firsthand. He served 12 years for third-degree murder and draws on that experience as a filmmaker.

“The community that is often depicted in prison was not what I was a part of. What I found in the prison system was a beautiful community of people who really changed their lives,” said Moore during a short talk before the film. “I struggled for years after my release, but I did not give up. I had no network, no resume, no job prospects. I could not be an Uber driver, I could not work at Target. My family distrusted me, and my community distrusted me. It was hard.”

Moore eventually found people willing to give him a chance and connected with Oxholm. Pardon Me illustrates the difference a pardon can make to an individual both in economic and personal terms.

The post-screening panel discussion, moderated by specialty court coordinating attorney for the Cumberland County Public Defender’s Office Bradon Toomey ’14, further illustrated how pardons can change lives. Caldwell, Harding, and Moore joined Shelley Watson, Secretary of the PA Board of Pardons; Laurie J. Besden, an attorney who received a pardon in 2020; Hon. William R. Carpenter, the Montgomery County judge who presided over Besden’s cases; and Craig E. Kauzlarich ’08, a partner at Abom & Kutulakis.

Watson noted that the percentage of pardon applications has risen “by hundreds of percentages” over the past five to seven years. Governor Josh Shapiro recently increased her office’s budget and doubled the staff, she said, which she predicted will result in faster movement on applications and a higher percentage of approvals. She noted the current time between submitting an application and approval is about a year and a half.

The two-hour program wrapped up with Oxholm offering training on how to fill out the appeal application and answering audience questions.

Cumberland County eyes Pardon Project Launch

At a reception after the event, attendees mingled with panelists, local attorneys, and law students. Shannon Lenig, pro bono coordinator and law journal administrative assistant with the Cumberland County Bar Association, said the program provided a valuable chance to educate members and the general public as the organization works toward its Pardon Project launch.

“We are still finalizing some eligibility guidelines, and we have been working closely with our DA’s office and our clerk of courts. We hope we will have something up and running within the next couple of months,” said Lenig. “We are so grateful to have Dickinson Law as a partner. Law students have helped at every clinic I have set up since I started at the Bar Association, and we used Dickinson Law’s beautiful venue for this event. The partnership is critical to our success.”