Federal Pardon Information

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Article II, Section 2, of the United States Constitution gives the President the power to grant reprieves and pardons for all offenses against the United States (federal offenses), except in cases of impeachment.1

All requests for a federal clemency (including pardons) must go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which receives, reviews, and then makes a recommendation to the President on each pardon application. We refer to it here as simply the “Pardon Attorney.” The Pardon Attorney answers to the Attorney General of the United States.2

Because the focus of this site is on pardons, we do not discuss reprieves, commutations, remission of fines and forfeitures, amnesty, parole, or other types of clemency that may be available under federal law here. We also do not discuss judicial alternatives such as record expungement, record sealing, setting aside or dismissal of convictions. You should talk to an attorney if you think any of these alternative options may be more appropriate for you.


Generally, you cannot apply for a federal pardon until at least five years have passed since you were released from confinement.3 If you simply received a fine and/or probation for the crime, then the five-year period begins on the date you were sentenced.4 If you are currently on probation, parole, or supervised for any other offense (whether or not is it the one you are a requesting a pardon for), you are generally not eligible to apply.5 In other words, the five-year period starts from your most recent conviction.

The Pardon Attorney can waive the five-year waiting period, but this is granted only in very exceptional circumstances. If you would like a waiver, you will need to submit a separate letter along with your application (see below) explaining why you should receive the waiver.6 An example of an exceptional circumstance may be you are imminently facing deportation or you do not have much longer to live because of a documented health condition.

If you are still in prison, the proper type of clemency to ask for is not a “pardon” but a “commutation,” which is basically a reduction of your prison sentence. A commutation is much like parole. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not “forgive” you of the crime and does not necessarily restore any of your rights.7 There is a separate application form for a commutation, which can be found on the Pardon Attorney’s website at http://www.usdoj.gov/pardon/forms.htm.

In addition to the waiting period, the Pardon Attorney may consider, but is not limited to, the following factors in determining whether to recommend you for a pardon8:

  • Your post-conviction conduct, character, and reputation. If you have led a responsible, productive life for a significant period of time after your conviction, this is a good indication that you have been rehabilitated. The Pardon Attorney will conduct a background investigation on you, including your financial/employment stability, your family/marriage, your reputation in your community, your community services or involvement, charitable donations or services you have given, your military record (if applicable), among other things.
  • The seriousness and age of your offense. Generally, the more serious the crime, the older the conviction must be for you to be recommended for a pardon. The Pardon Attorney will consider the impact of your offense on law enforcement and the public, as well as the impact on the victim or victims of your crime.
  • Your acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement. The Pardon Attorney presumes guilt. After all, you have already been convicted of the crime. Therefore, it does not help for you to try to minimize or rationalize your guilt (for example, “Everybody else was doing it,” or “I didn’t know it was illegal to do it”). If, however, you are still convinced that you were innocent of the crime and have maintained your innocence from the beginning, then you better have some very good proof of this (for example, DNA evidence conclusively showing that someone else committed the crime). The Pardon Attorney is generally more interested in seeing that you have accepted responsibility for your actions and have made restitution to your victim (if any was ordered). The Pardon Attorney is also interested in seeing that you understand the effect your crime had on the victim and society, and that you genuinely want to be forgiven of the crime.
  • Your need for a pardon. Although simply wanting to be forgiven of the crime is not an invalid reason to want a pardon, the Pardon Attorney is more interested in more tangible, serious needs such as employment-related needs. For example, your inability to get a job or pursue a particular trade or profession because of your conviction, which consequently prevents you from providing for you and your family an adequate standard of living. Another compelling reason may be to avoid deportation so that you will not be separated from your loved ones.
  • Official recommendations and reports. The Pardon Attorney will solicit information and opinions from the United States Attorney who was the prosecutor in the case, as well as the sentencing judge who was involved. The Pardon Attorney gives a lot of weight to these individuals’ opinions because they were closely involved in your case and know about the factual details of the case. The U.S. Attorney and the sentencing judge may choose to support, oppose, or take no position on your application.

The Pardon Attorney can only recommend, and the President can only grant, you a pardon for a federal conviction.9 This includes all convictions you received in any United States District Court, as well as District of Columbia convictions and court-martial convictions.10 If you want a pardon for a state conviction, you should find the appropriate page on this site dealing with pardons in that particular state.

Finally, keep in mind that getting a federal Presidential pardon is very difficult. The President receives lots of applications but grants very few. In 2012, 383 applications were received. 5 pardons were granted and 147 were denied.[1]. If you are able to get most if not all of what you want through an expungement or other alternative procedures available in your state, you should consider those instead, as they are usually easier to obtain than a pardon.

Your chance of getting a pardon largely depends on your individual circumstances. Naturally, the older and less serious your conviction, and the more compelling your life story, the higher your chance of getting a pardon. Your chance of getting a pardon can also depend on who is serving as President at the time your application is reviewed; some Presidents are simply more lenient than others in handing out pardons.

The Application Process

You can obtain clemency and pardon application materials on the Pardon Attorney’s website, at http://www.usdoj.gov/pardon/forms.htm. If you do not have access to the Internet or the application materials, you can contact the Pardon Attorney’s office directly at 202-616-6070 or write to:

Office of the Pardon Attorney
1425 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 11000
Washington, D.C. 20530

There are no application fees to apply. The pardon application form is quite simple and self-explanatory, as it was created for non-lawyers to use. The form asks for basic information such as your name, any aliases you have used, your address, your date of birth, your martial status, your immigration status, information about your children (if any), your residence history, your employment history, your substance abuse and mental health information, your financial status, your education history, your military record (if any), among other things.

You will be asked to list information about every arrest and conviction you have received, including convictions which you are not seeking a pardon for, as well as serious traffic convictions which led to an arrest or a criminal charge (for example, DUI and reckless driving). You will need to know the date of the arrest or conviction, what the charge was for, the law enforcement authority that was involved, the location and disposition (outcome) of the case. You will also be expected to explain in your own words the factual circumstances of each incident.

If you have convictions in other states, you can obtain a more comprehensive, nationwide criminal report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You can find out how to do this by calling the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., at (202) 324-3000, or logging onto its website at http://www.fbi.gov. The FBI’s website also has a list of local FBI offices you can call. Alternatively, you can contact the criminal history record repository (which keeps a record of all criminal activity in a state) in each state where you have arrests/convictions. Listed on Criminal History Record Repositories is a list of criminal history record repositories for all 50 states.

There is a section on the application form that asks you to explain your reasons for applying for a pardon. This may be the most important part of your application. You should submit, on a separate sheet of paper, a detailed and genuine personal statement explaining why you want a pardon.

Tell the Pardon Attorney/President how your conviction has negatively affected you and/or your family. For example, explain how you have been denied housing or employment opportunities because of your conviction, and how this has prevented you from providing you and your family an adequate standard of living. Submit any proof you may have (such as denial letters) to support your claims.

If you are facing deportation because of a conviction, explain how being separated from your family will negatively affect you as well as them. If you are pursuing a career in a field that requires you to obtain a pardon, submit documents, letters, or other proof from a prospective employer, licensing agency, or attorney verifying this necessity. If you need to regain your gun rights, explain why you need this—for example, you are pursuing a career that requires the use of firearms, or you want to take part in your family hunting traditions, or you simply want to feel more secure and able to defend yourself and/or your family after a recent traumatic event.

Also indicate on your personal statement all the positive things that have occurred in your life—for example, educational achievements, new or stable employment, marriage and children, community involvement, charitable services or donations, law-abiding behavior, etc. Submit copies of your college transcript, high school diploma or GED, military certificates, marriage certificate, honors and awards, and other proof of your rehabilitation and good character. Explain what your future plans are and how a pardon would help you.

Again, in writing your personal statement, keep in mind that the Pardon Attorney/President will not be retrying you for the offense. Although you may feel the need to explain the facts of the crime from your perspective, avoid trying to make excessive excuses for your crime and argue away your guilt. However you feel about the crime, you have already been found guilty. The Pardon Attorney/President is more interested in seeing your remorse for the crime, and your understanding of its effects on the victim and society, than anything else.

You are required to submit at least 3 character affidavits along with your application. These should come from credible people (such as your boss or a teacher) who know you well and can say good things about you. If possible, you should choose individuals who are not close friends or related to you, in order to avoid the appearance of bias.

If you submit more than 3 character affidavits, you should designate 3 as your “primary references.” The Pardon Attorney’s office prefers that you use the character affidavit forms it has already created for. If you choose not to use the Pardon Attorney’s forms, you can submit letters of recommendation in lieu of the character affidavits, so long as the letters of recommendation contain the writer’s full name, address, telephone number, an indication that the writers knows about the crime which you are seeking a pardon for, and a notarized signature. There is a notary public in most banks; they may charge a small fee, usually depending on whether the person has an account with that particular bank.

Make sure you keep a copy of everything you send for your records. Your completed application, along with all supporting documents and character affidavits or letters of recommendation, should be mailed to:

Office of the Pardon Attorney
1425 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 11000
Washington, D.C. 20530

As indicated in Part B, once the Pardon Attorney receives your application, his/her office will conduct a thorough investigation into your background. This includes looking at everything from your criminal history to your financial status to your mental health. Pardon officials may also interview you personally and those who wrote character affidavits/letters of recommendation for you. Pardon officials may also interview your neighbors, former and present employers, co-workers, and practically anyone else who may be able to provide relevant information about you. You should be upfront and cooperative with Pardon Attorney’s office and its agents at all times.

As indicated above, the Pardon Attorney’s office will also solicit information and opinions of the United States Attorney and the sentencing judge who were involved in the case. These individuals may support your application, oppose it, or take no position on it.

Unlike the procedure in most states, there will not be a hearing on your pardon application. After investigation is complete, the Pardon Attorney will decide whether to recommend you for a pardon and then send your application to the President, who has the final say on whether or not you receive a pardon. You will ultimately be notified of the President’s decision. The reasons behind the President’s decision are confidential and will not be available to you, even if you make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The President’s decision is final. This means you cannot appeal to a court if you are unhappy with the decision.12 However, if you are denied, you can reapply two years later following the date you were denied.13 The application process can take many months if not years to complete.14

For more information about the factors that the Pardon Attorney considers in making his/her recommendation, refer to Part B of this chapter.

The Effects

A pardon is primarily meant to forgive you of the particular federal crime you committed, prevent you from being punished further for that conviction, and restores rights which you may have lost as a result of the conviction. However, the pardon does seal, erase, or expunge your conviction from your criminal history record.15 The pardon does not make you innocent of the crime again.16 You must continue to disclose your conviction if you are asked about it on any application form, although you can also indicate that you were pardoned for that conviction.

If you are ever concerned that your conviction may be a problem when you apply for a job, housing, trade or occupational license, you may want to send a copy of the pardon to the employer, landlord, or licensing agency. The pardon is, after all, a strong official statement of forgiveness and rehabilitation from the highest executive officer in the country. Most employers, landlords, and licensing agencies will probably ignore your conviction if they see that you have been granted a pardon by the President of the United States.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is no way to expunge an adult federal conviction, and federal courts have no authority to expunge convictions.17 There is a very a limited process to expunge arrests or convictions that are found to be invalid, and first-time misdemeanor marijuana convictions where you were given probation.18 You should talk to attorney knowledgeable about federal record expungements if you are interested in taking advantage of any of those procedures.

As indicated above, the pardon would restore any federal rights which you may have lost as a result of that conviction. These typically include your rights to vote in federal elections, to serve on a jury in federal trials, and to run for and hold federal public office. Also, if you lost certain federal benefits because of the conviction, receiving a pardon for that conviction would, in most cases, make you eligible for those benefits again.19

A conviction (whether it is a state or federal conviction) that has been pardoned, expunged, or set aside cannot be used to prosecute you for “unlawful possession of a firearm” under federal law, unless the pardon, expungement, or set aside order specifically says that you cannot possess a firearm.20 However, this does not necessarily mean you cannot be prosecuted under state law. The law of the particular state you reside in may have stricter gun laws than federal law.

If the President grants you a pardon on the basis that you are innocent of the crime you were convicted of (for example, DNA evidence conclusively proves that someone else committed the crime), you may have a cause of action to bring a lawsuit against the United States government in the United States Court of Federal Claims.21 You should definitely retain an attorney to help you with this. The statute of limitations may be very short, so you should talk to attorney as soon as possible if you think you are eligible.

If you are given a full and unconditional pardon by the President or by the Governor of any state if it was a state conviction, then in most cases that particular conviction cannot be used by immigration authorities for purposes of deporting you.22 Of course, if you have other deportable convictions which have not been pardoned, those convictions can be used against you.

If you are given a pardon by the President on a finding that you have been rehabilitated, the conviction cannot be used to impeach you (attack your credibility) if you are ever a witness in any future federal court proceeding, provided you are not convicted of any felony after you receive the pardon.23 However, if you are given a pardon on a finding that you were innocent, then that conviction cannot be used to impeach you under any circumstance.

If you are required to register a sex offender under federal law, your duty to continue registering ends if the President grants you a pardon based on innocence.24 If you have other convictions which have not been pardoned and which require you to register, then you will probably need to continue registering.25 Also, every state has its own sex offender registration requirements which may be stricter than its federal counterpart; you may still be required to continue registering in the state you live even if your federal registration requirements end.

External Links


  1. http://www.justice.gov/pardon/statistics.htm