The executive clemency process is available to all eligible individuals, whether or not they are represented by an attorney, and is begun by filling in the relevant clemency application form and having it executed before a notary public. A pardon may be granted under state law or federal law.

The Pardon Power

State law: Most state governors have the power to grant pardons for offenses committed under state criminal law. In some states, that power is exercised by an appointed agency or board such as a parole board.

Pardons by state governors are becoming increasingly rare due to fear of political backlash if the pardoned individual re-offends. In 2000, the then-Governor of Arkansas, Mick Huckabee, commuted the 108-year sentence of felon Maurice Clemmons, making him eligible for parole. In 2009, Clemmons murdered four police officers in Parkland, Washington.

Federal law: The President of the United States has the power to pardon offenses recognized as federal crimes. Thousands of pardons have been granted by U.S. Presidents during their terms in office, some of which have proved more controversial than others.

Pardons vs. Commutations

A president can pardon, commute or rescind an offender’s conviction. A commutation reduces the severity of the original sentence, which can include releasing the offender from prison.

An absolute pardon restores the individual’s rights to own a firearm, vote and serve as a juror. These civil rights are usually restored after the person has served their sentence or paid their fine. Unlike a commutation, the pardoned individual no longer carries the label of convicted criminal. An absolute pardon can attract the most ire from objectors, but even a conditional pardon—which is issued in return for a pledge to do or refrain from doing an act—may not escape criticism.

The President is assisted by the Office of the Pardon Attorney in decisions relating to clemency requests. A presidential pardon can be granted at any time—even before the pardoned person has been convicted or even formally charged with any crime. However, in most cases, the Office of the Pardon Attorney requires that individual to wait until five years after conviction or release before seeking a pardon. An applicant’s post-conviction rehabilitation is central to the consideration of a pardon request. The individual must be able to show that they can lead a responsible and productive life for a significant period of time.

A presidential pardon does not expunge the record of a criminal conviction. A person who is pardoned must still disclose the record of the conviction where such information is necessary, although they may also state that the conviction received a pardon.

Pardons do not affect civil cases, nor local or state cases. A pardon will reduce or erase a sentence imposed to punish the offender for breaking a law against the United States, but it will not affect the punishment meted out by a related civil action. The pardoned offender will still be required to pay any restitution to the victim that was awarded by a judge in the civil action.

Controversial Pardons

1971: Jimmy Hoffa by President Richard Nixon (Republican President, 1969–1974)
The famous labor leader, James R. Hoffa, president of the powerful Teamster Union, was convicted in two separate trials that resulted in him being sentenced to eight years for jury tampering and five years for fraud. Hoffa was jailed in 1967 and released in 1971 on a conditional pardon—the condition being that he refrain from participating in Teamster’s activities. Critics saw the pardon as a backroom deal to gain union support for President Nixon’s re-election campaign.

1974: Richard Nixon by President Gerald Ford (Republican President, 1974–1977)
A majority of Americans disapproved of President Ford’s pardon granted to former President Richard Nixon for official misconduct that became known as the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 because of the controversy. At the time of the pardon, Nixon had not been charged with any offense, although there was a possibility of him being prosecuted. The absolute pardon was extended to all federal crimes that Nixon committed or might have committed during his terms in office. The unpopular pardon is widely thought to have contributed to President Ford’s failure to be re-elected in 1976.

1992: Caspar Weinberger by President George H W Bush (Republican President, 1989–1993)
Former Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, participated in the transfer of U.S. anti-tank missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Weinberger and five other former government officials had been convicted of the illegal sale of the arms. President Bush said that the pardon of Weinberger and the other officials was prompted by "honor, decency and fairness." The independent attorney who had prosecuted all six officials denounced the pardons as "the completion of the Iran-Contra cover-up."

2001: Patti Hearst by President Bill Clinton (Democratic President 1993–2001)
The 19-year-old granddaughter of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was initially taken hostage by a guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, in 1974. She soon announced that she had become a voluntary member of the group, and shortly thereafter participated in a bank heist. Captured in 1975, she was sentenced to seven years in prison. President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s sentence after she had served less than two years. President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon in 2001.

2007: Lewis "Scooter" Libby by George W Bush (Republican President, 2001–2009)
Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury in connection with the leaking of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby was Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff. In June 2007, a judge sentenced Libby to 30 months in prison, a fine of $250,000, two years of supervised release, plus 400 hours of community service. In July 2007, President Bush only commuted the 30-month prison sentence so that Libby was spared confinement. The rest of the sentence remained intact, despite lobbying from Libby’s attorneys for a full pardon.

Barack Obama (Democratic President, 2009–2017)
Although President Obama’s grants of commutations and pardons have not attracted much heated debate, some critics have slammed the his clemency toward hundreds of federal drug offenders, suggesting that it is an abuse of power. The President also set a record when he granted 78 pardons and 153 commutations within a single day.

History has shown that pardons tend to be inherently controversial. Whether during Donald Trump's presidency or subsequent presidencies, there's no doubt that more of these contentious pardons will occur in the future.