Commutations and Pardons: What You Need To Know

Commutations and Pardons

What does it mean to have one’s sentence commuted or pardoned? You might be wondering this if you’ve been listening to the news in the last few weeks.

Some of President Obama’s last acts as president were to commute 273 and pardon 64 prison sentences, which brought his total to 1,385 commutations – including 504 life sentences – and 212 pardons. That number is higher than all four of our nation’s previous presidents combined.

The one inmate in the news more than anyone else is Chelsea Manning – the Army private who was convicted of “taking troves of secret diplomatic and military documents and disclosing them to WikiLeaks” according to the Washington Post.

Obama also pardoned retired Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright had plead guilty to lying to the FBI in an investigation about a covert U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program. While Manning’s sentence was commuted – the transgender woman formerly known as Bradley Manning is scheduled to be released from all-male prison Fort Leavenworth in May, where she was serving a 35 year sentence – Cartwright was granted a full and complete pardon.

What’s The Difference Between Commutations and Pardons?

Both are forms of Executive clemency – meaning the power to commute a sentence lies with the executive branch and legislative and judicial branches have no power to interfere with or override that power. The president must commute or pardon a federal crime and, in most states, only the governor can commute or pardon a state crime. Knowing this, you can understand why the families of those serving unnecessarily harsh sentences for nonviolent drug crimes are relieved and exhilarated.

However, there are differences.

  1. A pardon is a full forgiveness for the crime while a commutation only reduces the sentence
  2. Prisoners must accept a pardon but commutations can sometimes be imparted without the prisoner’s consent.
  3. As we covered before, pardons – while sometimes coming too late to prevent prisoners from serving their full sentences – restore all civil rights lost to prisoners while commutations do not.
  4. Sometimes prisoners earn a commutation by good behavior, but pardons can sometimes be issued for purely political reasons.
  5. Commutations are generally granted with rehabilitation in mind. Therefore, there are often conditions of behavior attached which last until the end of the original sentence and if the former prisoner violates any of these terms, his or her commutation can be revoked and he or she can be made to serve the maximum original penalty.

Although these two high-level, controversial grants of clemency gained national attention, the bigger effort for former President Obama was that of releasing nonviolent drug offenders from the federal prison system.

In many cases, these inmates were sentenced to at least 20 years in prison for nonviolent crimes because of the much harsher sentencing guidelines that were in place in the late 1980’s. Also, his administration was working hard to reduce overcrowding in the federal prison system.

Take Away

If you believe you are serving an unnecessarily harsh sentence for a nonviolent crime, you can file a clemency request at the state level as well. At The David J. Kramer Law Firm PLLC, we are committed to working for you. Contact us today.

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