A commutation of sentence—also known as clemency—is a reduction in a convicted person’s criminal sentence. Under the United States Constitution, the President of the United States has the authority to commute sentences for federal criminal convictions—convictions in the United States District Courts and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
The President’s clemency power includes the authority to commute (reduce) a sentence imposed upon conviction of a federal offense—including the power to reduce (remit) the amount of a fine or restitution order that has not been paid.
A Presidential pardon goes beyond a mere commutation of sentence and will restore various rights lost as a result of the pardoned offense and lessen the stigma of the conviction—but it will not erase or expunge the record of the conviction. A person who has been granted a pardon still must disclose the conviction on any form where the information is required—although a person may note the pardon there as well. And under the current regulations governing petitions for executive clemency, a person may not apply for a full pardon until at least five years after being released from incarceration.
The loss of the right to vote and the loss of the right to hold state public office due to a federal felony conviction are penalties imposed by state law rather than federal law and may be reinstated by state action. The federal pardon process is often more demanding and time-consuming than similar state procedures, and in some cases it may be worth first pursuing state procedures to restore these civil rights.
But the President cannot commute a state criminal sentence. A person seeking commutation of a state criminal sentence generally must contact the Governor or the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles or Board of Parole Hearings to pursue such relief under state law. Some states prohibit the Governor from commuting a death sentence and only allow the Governor to reduce such a sentence to life without the possibility of parole, for example.
In some states a full pardon restores certain citizenship rights forfeited upon criminal conviction, such as the right to serve on a jury, to hold public office, and to serve as executor or administrator of an estate. And in some states when a person discharges a felony sentence the right to vote is automatically restored.
A full pardon will remove barriers to some but not all types of employment and state professional licensing. Licenses are granted at the discretion of state licensing boards for each profession and requirements for restoring licensing eligibility in a particular field should be obtained from that licensing board. A pardon will often not restore eligibility to become a licensed peace officer or police officer.