Presidential Clemency: Pardons, Commutations, and Reprieves

The U.S. Constitution grants the President of the United States broad clemency powers over federal offenses, including the authority to pardon crimes and commute sentences.

The U.S. Constitution gives the President of the United States the power of executive clemency, which includes the ability to pardon a person convicted of a federal offense. (Art. II, § 2.) (State governors have the power to pardon state convictions.) The president may also grant clemency in the form of a commutation (reduction) of a sentence, remission (relief) of a fine or restitution, or a reprieve (temporary suspension) of punishment.

What Is a Pardon?

A presidential pardon is a sign of forgiveness for those who accept responsibility for their crimes and demonstrate rehabilitation. If you protest your innocence, you can hamper your chances of getting a pardon.

When asking for a pardon, you are basically asking for the return of your "good name," and towards that end, you generally must convince the president that you've led a law-abiding, moral, and responsible life since your conviction. People who are pardoned regain the rights of a citizen, such as the right to vote and serve on a jury. But, a pardon is not a vindication and does not erase or expunge the record of conviction.

What Are Commutations, Remissions, and Reprieves?

The president's clemency power also includes commutations, remissions, and reprieves.

Commutation

The president can commute (reduce) sentences for federal convictions, meaning the president may substitute a less severe punishment in place of the punishment originally imposed. A sentence may be commuted when facts become known that were not known at the time of sentencing, or that came to light and were developed after. Commutation typically occurs in cases of old age, illness, and when the sentence is unusually harsh compared with similar cases. When a sentence is commuted, the recipient doesn't get back the rights of a citizen (only a subsequent pardon can do that, which sometimes happens). While commutations have been rare in the past, President Obama granted a record 1,715 commutations to acknowledge rehabilitation efforts and second chances.

Remission and Reprieve

The president's clemency power also authorizes remission of fines and penalties for federal offenses. This type of clemency involves relief from a forfeiture, penalty, or restitution order—payment of which would result in an undue hardship. Generally, the applicant must demonstrate a good faith effort to pay their debts and satisfactory post-conviction conduct.

A reprieve temporarily postpones the imposition of a criminal sentence, particularly a death sentence. Although only a pause, a reprieve granted by the president can offer an inmate extra time to appeal or provide the president more time to consider a pardon or commutation.

Applying for a Pardon or Commutation

Although not required, the clemency process typically starts with an application submitted to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, part of the U.S. Department of Justice. This office reviews petitions for executive clemency and makes recommendations to the president. On the Pardon Attorney's website, you'll find helpful information, including application forms for commutations and pardons. (The president can also grant pardons outside the application process, as discussed in our article on Presidential Pardon Powers and Limits.)

Who Can Qualify for a Pardon?

To be eligible for consideration of a pardon, you must:

  • be convicted of a federal, not a state, offense
  • wait five years from the date of your release from custody or, if you were not incarcerated, five years from the date of sentencing
  • complete all supervision requirements, including probation, parole, or supervised release
  • be willing to answer lots of questions about your activities since the conviction, including your credit status, civil lawsuits, and any subsequent brushes with the criminal law, and
  • have at least three character references who are not related to you by blood or marriage and are willing to sign an affidavit (a statement signed under oath) attesting to your good character.

Getting Legal Help

The applications you'll need to fill out are not particularly long or difficult to understand, but you may benefit from the help of an attorney who is experienced in these matters. It might be difficult for you to know what facts are supportive and how to present them. An attorney may be particularly helpful in developing an argument for commutation based on your having received a disparate sentence.

Notable Presidential Pardons and Commutations

Here's a sampling of presidential pardon and commutation recipients.

Vietnam War-era Selective Service Act violations. In 1977, President Carter issued a proclamation that pardoned certain persons who, during the Vietnam War era, broke the Military Selective Service Act by evading the draft or other acts. Those who believe that their convictions were covered by the proclamation can obtain an individual certificate of pardon by submitting an application (found on the Office of the Pardon Attorney's website).

Jimmy Hoffa. The former Teamsters union leader was convicted of mail fraud and jury tampering, receiving a 13-year sentence. President Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence after he had served almost five years, then Hoffa disappeared and is presumed dead.

Richard Nixon. He was the president of the United States who resigned in disgrace after being charged with misusing his presidential powers. Nixon faced almost certain criminal charges. He was pardoned by his Vice President and successor, President Gerald Ford.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The Chief of Staff to the Vice President was indicted for his actions during the investigation of the "outing" of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer. A federal jury found him guilty of obstructing justice, perjury, and making false statements. After his appeal was turned down, President George W. Bush commuted the entirety of his 30-month sentence. President Trump later granted Libby a pardon.

Chelsea Manning. President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst convicted of disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks. While in prison, Manning sought to undergo gender affirmation surgery.

Roger Stone. Stone was convicted as part of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election—an investigation tied to President Trump. Despite the possible political blowback, President Trump commuted Stone's sentence.

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