How do pardons work?

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A pardon, also called a grant of clemency, is an order by the chief executive that releases the convicted person from prison, from other penalties of a conviction, or from both. Only a jurisdiction’s chief executive has pardon power: A state’s governor has the authority to pardon those who have been convicted of state offenses, and the President of the United States can issue pardons for those convicted of federal crimes.

(For much more on this and related areas of the law, see our section on Clemency and Related Issues.)

Chief executives are accountable only to the political process when making pardon decisions, and those decisions are normally final. Few established standards exist for the exercise of the pardon power, leading cynics to argue that executives sometimes use pardons as favors.

Example: On his last day as Governor of California in 2011, Arnold Schwarzenegger granted a partial pardon to Esteban Nunez, reducing his prison term for manslaughter from 16 to seven years. The partial pardon was hugely controversial, as Esteban Nunez was the son of Schwarzenegger’s political ally Fabian Nunez, the former Speaker of the California Assembly. The parents of Luis Santos, the college student in whose murder Esteban Nunez participated, filed a lawsuit seeking to block the pardon under California’s Victims' Bill of Rights, on the ground that Schwarzenegger failed to notify the family in advance so that it could formally oppose the partial pardon.

For more on pardons, see Presidential Clemency: Pardons, Commutations, and Reprieves and If I am pardoned for an offense, is that the same as having my record expunged?

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