In five years, Melissa T. Benvegno of Allentown sees herself as a juvenile probation officer or even a federal border patrol agent.

Not long ago, those dreams would have been next to impossible for her, given two shoplifting convictions she had in her teens and 20s that would come up every time she applied for a job.

Now 35, Benvegno says she's a different person from the girl who grew up without stable parents and spent time in foster care as a result. She's gotten an associate degree in criminal justice and is working on her bachelor's, and says she's overcome her rough upbringing and believes she could help other youths do the same.

Last year, Gov. Tom Corbett granted Benvegno a rare pardon from her misdemeanor record, ending a more than three-year process that is, in effect, the only way for someone with even a minor brush with the law to have his or her past cleared in Pennsylvania.

"I started crying," Benvegno said, remembering the moment she got the notice. "Just like I'm about to do right now. To me, it's a feeling that you can put that behind you."

Benvegno is getting a second chance — unlike most people with criminal records in Pennsylvania, which makes it very difficult for someone to move on from a misdemeanor or felony conviction.

How hard is it? Absent a pardon, you must be 70 and arrest free for 10 years to have your record expunged. Or be dead. For at least three years.

That leaves action from the governor the only avenue for almost anyone who committed a crime when they were young, whether a bar fight, drug possession or a more serious offense like burglary.

Using the Right-to-Know Law, The Morning Call reviewed clemency applications that were decided by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons for Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks, Schuylkill, Carbon and Monroe counties from June 2011 to October 2012.

The applications and meeting minutes showed 56 requests from the area were considered by the board. They overwhelmingly involved people with minor criminal histories that, many said, continued to haunt them years after they paid their debts to society, causing them embarrassment and difficulty advancing in their careers.

But most were unable to sell their hard-luck stories to the five-member board, which makes nonbinding recommendations to the governor, who decides on his own.

Nearly 60 percent were rejected by the Board of Pardons, including 28 — half — who were turned down without a hearing in which they could publicly plead their cases.

Of the 23 who won a pardon recommendation that was sent to the governor's desk, 11 were granted pardons by Corbett, one was rejected, and 11 others were still awaiting action.

The applicants spanned professions, ages and education levels, including:

• A Texas man attending law school, who feared he couldn't take the bar exam because of a 1998 conviction for the statutory sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Catasauqua when he was 19. (He was granted a pardon.)

• A 33-year-old Allentown man who admitted in 1999 to threatening another man with a shotgun in Wilson, but said he had since served in the Army, gotten married, had two children and enrolled in college. (He was granted a hearing, but the board denied recommending a pardon.)

• A 51-year-old Allen Township man with convictions for trespassing at a shuttered cement company in 1983 and the simple assault of his girlfriend in 2000. Raymond R. Brown said he wanted to find a better job, restore his voting rights and volunteer as a coach for his grandchildren. (He was denied without a hearing.)

In an interview, Brown said the experience was disheartening and left him feeling like he'll never live down his past.

"Years ago, you could apply for a job without them getting that information on you," Brown said. "Now with the computers, they know everything about you. What do you think people think when they see that? 'Well, that guy steals and goes around and assaults people.'"

Brown said he was wrong to do what he did, but that he's changed in the many years that have gone by. He compared the process to New Jersey, where he said he was able to get a 25-year-old felony conviction expunged merely by filling out paperwork and sending it back to his lawyer.