How Presidential Pardons Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

What a Pardon Does

President Donald Trump granted Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate and former federal prisoner, a full pardon in 2020 after commuting her sentence on non-violent drug charges in 2018. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

A person is convicted of a federal felony may have to go to prison or pay a fine. But that's not all. He or she loses certain civil liberties — the right to vote, serve on a jury, own a firearm. In legal terminology, losing certain rights is referred to as collateral consequences or a disability [sources: Thompson, U.S. Department of Justice].

But the Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the president broad power to provide relief from all those punishments. As a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974 Schick v. Reed, put it, "plenary authority ... to 'forgive' the convicted person in part or entirely, to reduce a penalty in terms of a specified number of years, or to alter it with conditions which are in themselves constitutionally unobjectionable" [source: Thompson].


The president's power to excuse a person's offenses and reduce or eliminate the penalties is called clemency. There are five specific types.

  • Reprieve, a temporary postponement of punishment
  • Remission of criminal fines and forfeiture
  • Commutation, which can cut short a sentence or substitute a milder punishment than the one the court has imposed, but doesn't restore a person's civil rights.
  • Amnesty, which is usually granted to groups of people
  • Pardon, which restores a person's full civil rights and wipes clean the slate, as if the crime had never been committed [source: Thompson].

There is also the conditional pardon or amnesty. Under this circumstance, a president may issue a pardon in exchange for something in return. In 1902 for example, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a blanket amnesty to all who had taken part in the insurrection in the Philippines, then an American territory. However, those who received the amnesty were required to swear an oath "accept the supreme authority of the United States of America in the Philippine Islands" [source: Shanor and Miller].

Similarly, in 1971, President Richard Nixon gave union leader Jimmy Hoffa a conditional pardon in exchange for Hoffa's pledge to never again take part in labor organization [source: Time].