Are There Limits to Presidential Pardons?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 14, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

President Obama commuted prison sentences for 46 drug offenders on Monday, noting that their long sentences (lifelong in 14 cases) didn't fit their crimes. The commutations reflect a trend at federal, state, and local levels of relaxing harsh minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

These commutations also reflect Mr. Obama's view of America, which he called "a nation of second chances." As The New York Times pointed out, this brings the President's commutation total to 89, the most by any president since Lyndon Johnson, and more than the last four presidents combined. So what are the differences between commutations and pardons, and what are the limits to the presidential pardon?

Commutations vs. Pardons

A commutation is a form of clemency whereby an official lessens an offender's punishment after he or she has been convicted. Whereas a pardon removes the conviction and any civil disabilities that come from it (like restricted voting rights), a commutation just removes the remaining sentence.

So while these 46 drug offenders will be released from prison, their criminal convictions will remain on their records. This is compared to the pardon that new President Gerald Ford gave to former President Richard Nixon regarding the Watergate scandal, which was a "full, free, and absolute" pardon, precluding any potential criminal trial and conviction.

The Pardoning Power

The power to pardon comes from Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the president "Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States." While the Supreme Court has interpreted the power broadly -- "It extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken, or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment" -- it is limited to those offenses falling under the jurisdiction of the pardoning official. Therefore, Mr. Obama has the authority to issue pardons for federal crimes.

There are no statutory or judicial limits on the number of pardons or commutations a president can grant. (Lyndon Johnson commuted 226 sentences.) And while some commutations are often reserved for political allies, these 46 seem representative of larger criminal justice reforms.

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