How to Apply for a Pardon or Commutation of Sentence

When a person has been convicted of a crime, the person may be able to seek relief from the conviction or sentence by seeking executive clemency, a process through which the state reduces or removes the consequences of conviction. Executive clemency is granted by the President and, in most states, through the Office of the Governor.

Clemency comes in two basic forms:

  • Pardons: An order that fully or partially removes the consequences of a conviction. Pardons are normally issued after a defendant's sentence has been served.
  • Commutations of sentence: A reduction of the defendant's remaining sentence, allowing for early release from incarceration or early discharge from probation or parole.

What is Executive Clemency

A pardon or grant of clemency is an executive action that fully or partially lifts the consequences of a criminal conviction. Although the benefits of a pardon or clemency may vary significantly from state to state, in broad terms the relief may include:

  • Full Pardon - A decree that allows the recipient to deny having been convicted of the underlying offense, and that restores all civil rights,

  • Partial Pardon - A decree that recognizes the recipient's rehabilitation but does not constitute a finding of innocence, that does not fully restore the recipient's civil rights, or both;

  • Commutation - A full or partial reduction of the terms and conditions of a convicted person's sentence.

The system of applying for a pardon or executive clemency varies significantly between jurisdictions. Generally speaking, if your jurisdiction has more generous laws for sealing or expunging your record, your first recourse should probably be under those laws. If your jurisdiction has a restrictive expungement law, or if you do not qualify, you may consider applying for a pardon as an alternative.

Some jurisdictions are much more likely than others to grant a executive clemency to an offender who shows strong evidence of rehabilitation. Other jurisdictions are much more restrictive. Clemency must be obtained through the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred. The President may not pardon state convictions or grant commutation for a state criminal sentence. A state may not pardon a conviction from another state, or grant any relief from an out-of-state sentence.

Obtaining a Pardon

Ordinarily, you must serve your sentence in full, including any term of probation or parole, before you will be considered for a pardon. Most states allow for persons who have been convicted of criminal offenses to apply to the governor for pardons. A few allow for the application for a pardon or clemency, but do not vest that authority with the governor.

For federal convictions, the President has the authority to issue pardons or to grant clemency. Applications are submitted to the Pardons Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Justice reviews the application and makes recommendations for its disposition.

If your conviction is for a U.S. military offense, you will have to apply for clemency with the branch of the military that issued the conviction before you can apply for a pardon with the President.

In states, pardons are normally issued by the governor or an executive agency, with varying levels of control and influence over the pardons process given to state pardons boards. Depending upon the state, application may be made through the governor's office, through the state attorney general's office, or through a board of pardon of paroles or a similar agency. In most cases, a pardon application will include extensive personal information, including:

  • An explanation of the facts of the offense for which the applicant wants to be pardoned,

  • Details of the applicant's other criminal history (if any),

  • Evidence of the applicant's rehabilitation,

  • Information about the applicant's personal circumstances, including the applicant's residences, financial, and employment history,

  • Affidavits from people who know you about the applicant's present good character.

Recipients of a Presidential pardon are granted relief from their federal conviction and the full restoration of their civil rights as affected by that conviction. In states, the effect of a pardon may vary significantly.

  • In some states a pardon results in your being treated as if you were never convicted, with the full restoration of your rights.

  • In some states, a pardon may signify only that you have been deemed rehabilitated, while leaving your criminal record intact.

  • In some states, in order to fully restore your civil rights, the pardon must explicitly state that your rights have been restored.

Beyond your investment of time, some paper and a stamp, there is no cost to apply for a pardon. However, you should review your state's clemency laws when determining if seeking a pardon will be of benefit to you. Following an unsuccessful petition for a pardon, there may be a significant waiting period before you may again file a petition, so you should verify that you meet the eligibility requirements before you file.

What is a Commutation

Commutation offers a possibility of relief from the applicant's sentence. A grant of clemency in the form of commutation may thus allow a convicted defendant to avoid incarceration, to be released early from a sentence of incarceration, or to obtain an early discharge from probation or parole.

Commutation does not set aside or otherwise affect the applicant's conviction. Thus, although commutation may result in the earlier restoration of rights that are automatically restored at the conclusion of a defendant's term of imprisonment or supervision in the sentencing jurisdiction, commutation does not otherwise restore the applicant's civil rights.

Obtaining a Commutation of Sentence

The process of petitioning a commutation is largely analogous to the process of petitioning for a pardon: An application is prepared and submitted to the governor or governmental agency that has jurisdiction over the application process, along with any supporting materials. The application is reviewed, and a recommendation is made for its disposition. The governor, or other agency or officer vested with the power of deciding the petition, will then decide whether the petition should be denied, or what relief should be granted.

Depending on the facts and the laws of the jurisdiction, there may be a hearing before a decision is rendered, or the decision may be made upon the petition alone. In many jurisdictions, an application for a commutation will not be considered or will only rarely be considered before the applicant has partially served his or her sentence. Some jurisdictions expect that the applicant will admit guilt and express remorse before the applicant will be considered for commutation. 

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 7, 2018.