Commutations vs. Pardons

What’s the difference?

Yesterday President Bush commuted the 30-month prison sentence of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff who was convicted of perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of justice. At a press conference today, Bush said he won’t rule out pardoning Libby at some point as well. In an “Explainer” written in 2000 and recycled below, Emily Yoffe explains the difference between a commutation and a pardon. For more, see Chris Suellentrop’s Explainer on whom the president can pardon, and Bruce Gottlieb’s on how a president picks people (besides his co-workers) for acts of clemency, and whether he’s allowed to pardon himself.

President Clinton has granted a spate of them recently, although not many by historical standards as this piece explains. So how do pardons and commutations differ? For that matter, how do they differ from clemency and amnesty?

President Clinton this month granted clemency to 62 people—clemency is the overall term for official forgiveness of a violation. Three of those people received commutations of their sentences. That is, they were released from prison, where they were currently serving time. The rest received pardons, or forgiveness of their crimes after their sentence was served. Pardons come in two forms: full or conditional. A full pardon is a formal forgiveness by the government that restores certain liberties, such as the right to vote or own firearms. It does not imply innocence, nor does it expunge a criminal record. Nor can any fines that were imposed in sentencing be recouped. But it does make those pardoned feel better about themselves. A conditional pardon has some strings attached, such as serving a lesser punishment. A pardon can be granted in anticipation of conviction of any crimes, as in Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon. It can also be granted posthumously. Last year Clinton pardoned Henry Flipper, who died in 1940, a former slave who was the first black West Point graduate and who was dishonorably discharged for racial reasons. An amnesty is an official “forgetting” (the word has the same root as amnesia) of actions against the state by a class of people. An amnesty can come with certain requirements. For example, Ford made amnesty available to men who refused to serve in Vietnam, but required community service. But in 1977 Jimmy Carter proclaimed a blanket amnesty for them.