How Presidential Pardons Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

The Pardon Process

It's a holiday tradition for the U.S. president to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey. Here Barack Obama pardons Abe, at the White House in 2015. The turkeys do NOT need to go through the pardon attorney's office to get their approval. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Vast numbers of people convicted of federal crimes request clemency, but only a few of them actually receive it. In order to help make sure that the clemency process is conducted fairly, the Department of Justice has an institution, the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which has the job of accepting and reviewing applications and preparing recommendations for how the cases should be handled [source: Thompson].

After a petition for executive clemency is received, the pardon attorney conducts an investigation of the facts of the case, with the help of the FBI and other federal agencies. Once that's completed, the attorney presents the petition and all the research on the case to the deputy attorney general, along with a recommendation of what should be done. The deputy then transmits it to the attorney general, who reviews it and writes a recommendation, which is then submitted to the president [source: Thompson].


The Department of Justice also has set up guidelines for reviewing pardon petitions, and what factors should be considered in deciding whether to grant them. The factors to taken into consideration include:

  • Post-conviction conduct, character and reputation
  • The seriousness of the crime, and how recently it occurred
  • Acceptance of responsibility, remorse and atonement
  • Need for relief
  • Official recommendations and reports relevant to the case [source: Thompson].

For commutations, the pardon attorney traditionally has looked at questions such as whether a person is serving an unusually harsh sentence, is in ill health, or has cooperated in an investigation or prosecution but not been rewarded for it so far. But in 2014, the Department of Justice announced a list of six new factors that it would use to prioritize applications.

  • The applicant is in prison serving a federal sentence that is more severe that what he or she would have received for the same crime today.
  • The applicant is a nonviolent, low-level offender without significant ties to major criminal organizations.
  • The applicant has served at least 10 years of the sentence.
  • The applicant doesn't have a significant criminal history.
  • Good conduct in prison.
  • No history of violence prior to or during current term of imprisonment. [source: Thompson].

Presidents, though, can also go outside of this system. The Washington Post reported in February 2020, for example, that most of President Trump's 24 grants of clemency up to that point had gone to offenders who didn't go through the pardon office system, or else hadn't met its requirements [source: Reinhard and Gearan].