What is a Government Pardon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A government pardon is a formal forgiveness for a crime, accompanied with a reduction in sentence. Depending on the nature of the crime and the nation, pardons can come from a number of sources. Heads of state usually have authority to grant pardons and people like state governors may be able to do so as well. In order to receive a pardon, prisoners must submit an application documenting the situation and providing compelling arguments for issuing a pardon.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The pardon does not expunge the record or erase the conviction. Instead, the government forgives the prisoner for committing the crime and reduces the sentence. A government pardon may result in an immediate release from prison if the prisoner has served enough time to satisfy the government. In a related concept, commutation, the government reduces the sentence, but does not forgive the crime. Usually, prisoners have assistance from an attorney with experience in the criminal justice system in the process of drafting a pardon application and soliciting support.

People can use a variety of arguments when they request a government pardon. One option is to request the pardon on compassionate grounds, usually for a prisoner who is very ill or frail. The pardon application may suggest that the prisoner should be allowed to die at home, rather than enduring an illness in prison. Other prisoners may focus on their age at the time of the crime, asking for forgiveness because of extreme youth. Pardon applications may also focus on a prisoner's reform, asking for clemency from the government on the grounds that the prisoner has turned his life in a different direction and wants to contribute to the community outside the prison.

The process of reviewing pardon applications and determining when to grant a government pardon is complex and can be fraught. Politicians are usually reluctant to position themselves as “soft on crime” and they may feel like they need to deny requests for clemency for particularly horrific or high profile crimes. People leaving office may be more inclined to offer pardons because fallout isn't as much of a concern for them.

The government pardon will include a formal written declaration, as well as an order to release the prisoner or reduce the sentence accordingly. The media often covers these events because pardons are relatively rare and in cases where the government grants a request, there may be a human interest story behind the proceedings.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have to wonder if there are any limits to what a President can do as far as pardons go? I know the fiasco that happened with President Clinton pardoning an incredible amount of people during his lame duck session as President and that at the time there was nothing that could be done, because the President had full power to issue pardons, and they did not have to be approved by Congress.

I just see the presidential pardon as being something that can easily be manipulated and used for the wrong reasons. Say a powerful political leader commits murder and his friend, the president pardons him. This could happen under Presidents prior to Clinton without anything anyone could do about it, so I am wondering if since Clinton if there have been any restrictions placed on the presidential pardons, like a waiting list or a limit on how many the President can give out, or even if some can be overridden by Congress or the courts?


@JimmyT - You are correct in thinking that, there is one type of pardon out there that can expunge everything someone has done and that is called a presidential pardon.

A presidential pardon is the only pardon that I know of that will eliminate what someone has done off of their record and allow them to have all of their rights restored as they were before the conviction.

This is a power of the President and was hotly debated by the fore-fathers, who some of them saw it as becoming a political tool to be used to help their political allies get out of trouble and corrupt the government.

In a way, it has come to this as some pardons are sketchy and become seen as political favors, as with Clinton pardoning his brother, and especially with Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon for crimes he was not even convicted of yet.


@Emilski - I always assumed that too, until I read this page. I know I have heard of instances where people have received their rights back that they lost due to their conviction.

There are a lot of rights lost by people convicted of a felony, such as the right to own a fire arm, as well as the right to vote, and I know I have heard instances where for whatever reason they received a full pardon from somebody and had their rights fully restored, from before they were convicted of a crime.

To me there is definitely a pardon out there that allows someone these privileges to be restored. There are way too many instances throughout history where the law convicted someone on either technicalities or simply unfairness in the courts for there not to be some sort of pardon that can right a wrong by the courts.


I always assumed that when someone is pardoned the conviction is erased from the record and they no longer have to worry about it being part of their past.

I feel like this is the popular conception of what a government pardon is and that most people think that when someone is issued a pardon, they are forgiven of their crime, as well as having it erased from the record.

I have heard various instances in which people have sought to receive a pardon in order for this to happen so I am wondering if there is a type of pardon out there that allows this to happen, such as a presidential pardon, or if this is just a popular misconception that people have over the entire issue?

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