How Do Pardons Work? All You Need To Know About Executive Clemency After President Obama’s Latest Commutations And Pardons

President Barack Obama granted 209 commutations and 64 pardons Tuesday, possibly his final use of executive clemency during his time as the commander-in-chief.

While the commutations, or shortened prison sentences, were given to prisoners with nonviolent drug convictions, Chelsea Manning — the army private imprisoned for revealing secret U.S. military and government information — was the most well-known name on the list.

Obama also pardoned, or granted a reprieve, to 64 prisoners, including Oscar Lopez-Rivera of Chicago, an activist who fought for Puerto Rican independence with paramilitary organization Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN). But what does a presidential pardon mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a presidential pardon is an expression of the commander-in-chief’s forgiveness, usually granted following the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime as well as established good conduct after conviction or completion of sentence. While it does not signify innocence, it does remove civil disabilities like restrictions on the right to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury.

A pardon is different from a commutation of sentence — as in Manning’s case — which reduces a sentence being served — partially or totally. However, it does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence, or remove civil disabilities resulting from a criminal conviction.

According to Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States: “The President . . . shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” This implies that the president’s authority to grant clemency is limited to federal and different state authorities need to be approached for state offenses.

To make the process more accessible, there is no fee for applying and the applicant does not need a lawyer to apply for pardon or commutation. No recommendations from other elected officials are required with the application and the final decision does not depend on any political affiliations.

The application for clemency is a particularly detailed one as the applicant's post-conviction rehabilitation is a very important part of the pardon request. The process is an entirely written one and no hearing is held before the final decision.

For the pardon, many factors are taken into consideration: “... the applicant’s post-conviction conduct, character, and reputation; the seriousness and relative recentness of the offense; the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement; and the applicant’s need for relief.” According to the Justice Department, the applicant’s sincerity during the process is also given importance.

The process is a lengthy one and the final say lies with the president. If the request is denied, the applicant can reapply anytime after one year from the date of denial. 

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