Rendell, a Democrat with about a month left in his second term, has granted 1,059 pardons, according to the state Board of Pardons. His office said 29 more await action on his desk, and he expects to consider 34 others by the end of the year.
That shattered the previous record set by the late Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp, who signed 475 pardons during his tenure in the 1970s. Among other recent governors, Republican Dick Thornburgh signed 61; the late Democrat Robert Casey, 311; Republican Tom Ridge, 270; and Republican Mark Schweiker, who finished the final 15 months of Ridge's term, 338.
Rendell, the former district attorney and mayor of Philadelphia, wasn't immediately available to discuss the reasons for the increase. In response to a question about it, spokesman Gary Tuma said Rendell administration lawyers estimate there were about 10 times as many applications during his tenure than there were under Shapp.
Outgoing governors have traditionally been able to ask the Pardons Board to forward recommendations made in the governor's final weeks in office. Schweiker, Rendell's predecessor, issued 83 pardons a few days before Rendell was sworn in. The board meets next week to consider 27 more applications.
The most common charges for which Rendell has issued pardons are shoplifting, other forms of theft and drug offenses. The dozens of pardons he has granted in 2010 include people convicted of possessing a weapon on school property, fraudulent use of credit cards, riotous destruction of property, prostitution, drunken driving and drag racing.
Many of Rendell's pardons come with conditions, commonly that if the offender is convicted of another crime, the pardon becomes canceled. Pennsylvania governors have had the authority to make pardons conditional since an 1844 state Supreme Court ruling.
Pardons restore an offender's legal rights, such as to possess a gun or eligibility to be hired, but do not expunge the record, a separate process that is handled in county courthouses.
To receive a pardon, the five-member Board of Pardons must recommend it to the governor, who has the final say. About half of all applicants are turned down without receiving a board hearing.
Applications for clemency - pardons are by far the most common type - increased steadily after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, as more organizations began imposing background checks on employees and volunteers, said John Heaton, secretary to the Board of Pardons.
A 2008 law let most people with summary convictions have their records expunged by local courts if they have been free of arrest for several years. It has helped cut into the board's caseload. Previously, expungement was generally limited to defendants who were at least 70 years old or had died.
The new expungement process does not pertain to more serious offenses, and there are currently about 1,500 people waiting for the board to consider their applications, a three-year backlog, Heaton said.
He said most pardon-seekers are motivated by employment-related issues.
"This is a project for 20 years, for some of these people," Heaton said. "They try again and again and again."
Heaton said letters to Rendell seeking clemency have become more numerous in recent weeks, as his term nears its end.
"They tell him how they know him, or how they met him, and they'd like him to take care of it before he leaves," Heaton said. "They think he can, and of course I have the misfortune of telling them they have to get in line."
Those letters get forwarded to the Board of Pardons, which tells them governors may not act without the board's prior recommendation.
The five-member Board of Pardons is about to see some new faces, as it includes the attorney general and lieutenant governor, and both offices will change hands next month. The expiration terms of the others - corrections expert John E. Wetzel, psychologist Russell A. Walsh and victim representative Louise B. Williams - are staggered to expire next year, in 2013 and in 2015, respectively.