Pardon Law and Legal Definition

A pardon is defined in criminal law as an official act of forgiving a crime. A pardon may be granted under the executive powers of a governor or the President. By granting a convicted person a pardon, the conviction is eradicated from the records, the person is freed from further punishments and penalties, and may not be retried for the same offense.

A pardon may be granted to persons for such reasons as advanced age, acts proving rehabilitation, unfairness of trial proceedings, doubts about guilt of the convicted person, or terminal illness. It is usually based upon a notion of undeserved punishment. A pardon does not indicate that the person pardoned is not guilty, but that they are forgiven and no longer deserving of punishment. While laws vary by state, a pardon request usually needs to be accompanied by a lengthy period of exemplary behavior and a reference check. Generally, the more serious the crime, the longer the time requirement for excellent behavior. There are few standards or checks on the exercise of the power to pardon.

A common reason used in granting pardons is to mitigate disproportionate sentencing, especially between participants in the same criminal act or those convicted in the same jurisdiction. Some governors are against using pardons in this manner because they believe it usurps the discretion of the sentencing judge. President Carter commuted the twenty-year sentence of Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy after four years and three months because Liddy had served much more time than more significant figures like John Mitchell. However, the Supreme Court has held that proportionality in imposing the death penalty is not a constitutional requirement.

While pardons are typically given to persons who have been incarcerated for felonies, they may be issued for misdemeanors in some cases. Laws governing pardons vary by state, so local laws should be consulted. The following is an example of a state governor's statement regarding pardons:

"A California Governor's pardon is an honor traditionally granted only to individuals who have demonstrated exemplary behavior following conviction for a felony. A pardon will not be granted unless it has been earned. Obtaining a pardon is a distinct achievement based upon proof of a useful, productive, and law-abiding life following conviction. The Governor has complete discretion in deciding whether to grant a pardon. A pardon is a privilege—not a right—and not granted to every person who applies.

Absent extraordinary and compelling circumstances, an application will not be considered unless the applicant has been discharged from probation or parole for at least 10 years without further criminal activity during that period. The 10-year rule may be waived in truly exceptional circumstances (for example, factual innocence), if the applicant can demonstrate such circumstances warranting a specific need for the pardon.


Applications may be accepted from any person who has been convicted in California of a felony or certain specified misdemeanor sex offenses. In most cases, the first step in applying is to obtain a Certificate of Rehabilitation from the superior court in the county where the applicant currently resides. All other cases are by way of a direct or "traditional pardon" application. The procedure utilized will depend on the circumstances of each applicant, as explained below. Once an application is filed under either procedure, the case is referred to the Board of Prison Terms (Board) for investigation. The Board may contact the district attorney, investigating law enforcement agency, and other persons with relevant information on the applicant. No fee is charged for applying for a pardon.

Effect of a Pardon

A pardon does not seal the individual's criminal record, and the pardon is itself a public record. When a pardon is granted, the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are notified so that they may update their records on the applicant. The pardon is filed with the Secretary of State, reported to the Legislature, and is a public record."