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Presidential Pardon: Definition & Process

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  • 0:00 The Presidential Pardon
  • 1:12 How Does a Pardon Work?
  • 3:43 A Very Brief History…
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

Is it possible to really 'get out of jail free?' Presidents have many powers of office, but one of the most powerful and sweeping is the pardon. The act of ending a conviction or sentence and sparing a prisoner can be seen as an act of mercy, or of political calculation. But how does it actually work? How often do Americans 'get out of jail free,' courtesy of the President?

The Presidential Pardon

Think about the game Monopoly. During the game, a player will occasionally get sent to 'jail,' one of the corner spaces on the board. If you do get sent there, you have to wait until you roll doubles with the dice to get out--or you just pay. Of course, as anyone knows who has played the game, when you go to jail you can't pass the starting space and collect your $200 'salary.' In other words, it's a real bummer. Now, you might have been lucky in the game up to that point because you came across that wonderful free pass, the 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. If you've got one of those, you can spring yourself from prison straightaway, no fuss, no muss.

Now imagine if that were real - you were sent to jail, without hope of appeal or parole, and the only way out was the real-life equivalent of rolling doubles. Believe it or not, there is such a thing, though it's much rarer than the game version. A presidential pardon is the ultimate 'get out of jail free' card. Unfortunately, it's much harder to acquire one of those.

How Does a Pardon Work?

Let's start out by defining what a presidential pardon is. Under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the President 'shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.' This means that there's really only one limitation on the pardon power - the President can't pardon people connected to impeachment, which is the process of removing an elected official from office. Like the President. So, the President can't prevent someone from getting impeached, especially because just being impeached doesn't mean you've been convicted yet (for example, Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868, was not removed from office).

So, how does one go about getting a presidential pardon? Well, step one is to commit a crime (although that's not advisable). Still, if you have, you will have to start your appeal in the usual way, through the system in which you were convicted. For example, if you were convicted in a state, you would appeal through that state's appellate process. That process most likely ends up at that state's Supreme Court - sadly for you, that's probably the last stop. The President cannot pardon anyone for a state-level crime, only for a federal one.

Now if you've committed a federal crime, you're in business. You start by submitting a petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and then wait. . . at least five years is required for an act of executive clemency (which is a fancy way of saying 'pardon'). If the Office of the Pardon Attorney thinks your case is promising, it will get sent up the chain of command all the way, eventually, to the President.

When the President grants a pardon, it really is a 'get out of jail free' card; any sentence being served at that moment is commuted, or ended early. A pardon doesn't get rid of a criminal record but the punishments associated with a conviction are ended. So, if a person is imprisoned or on death row, they are released.

As you can imagine, this is a pretty powerful tool. So how often is it used?

A Very Brief History of Presidential Pardons

During the debate over the Constitution, many critics of the proposed new government had an issue with the pardon power, which seemed (to many) to be excessive. It reminded many Americans, uncomfortably, of the royal power of pardon, something a monarch could do. This was one reason why pardons are used less than one might probably imagine; because it's a such a powerful tool, Presidents are sensitive to the criticism that may come along with its use.

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