2-Minute Law School: Pardons

2-Minute Law School: Pardons from THELAW.TV on Vimeo.

Hi. Professor Albert here for this week’s edition of THELAW.TV’s 2-Minute Law School. This week, we’re going to talk about pardons and clemency.

Every year, shortly before Thanksgiving, a ceremony that takes place at the White House in which the president is presented with a live domestic turkey and the president grants the turkey a “presidential pardon,” sparing the bird from being slaughtered. The act of pardoning a turkey at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation has been a presidential tradition since 1989, during the first year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

So, what is a pardon?

A pardon is an expression of the president’s forgiveness. Pardons are ordinarily granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and their good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of their sentence. Pardons do not signify innocence.

Pardons are sometimes confused with clemency.

Clemency, otherwise known as commutation, reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, that is then being served, but it does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence, or remove civil disabilities that apply to the convicted person as a result of the criminal conviction. Commutation may also include a release of fines or restitution owed by the person.

The president has the unique ability to override the justice system, release anyone he chooses from paying a fine, and return a person to the state of innocence he had before he ever committed a crime. The power to pardon is left solely to the discretion of the president, and cannot be reviewed or overturned by any of the other branches of government. Article 2, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the executive officer of the United States the power to pardon, stating that “the President shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

All federal pardon petitions are addressed to the president, who grants or denies the request. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The Justice Department recommends that anyone requesting a pardon wait five years after conviction or release prior to receiving a pardon. The pardon power of the president extends only to offenses cognizable under federal law. However, the governors of most of the 50 states have the power to grant pardons or reprieves for offenses under state criminal law.

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