Pardons on a federal level do not expunge a crime; the crime remains on the individual’s record. However, the pardon is an act of forgiveness from the President. Receiving a presidential pardon can remove barriers to certain career, financial, and other opportunities. Presidents can issue pardons for incarcerated individuals that include a commutation of sentence, but historically the vast majority of pardons issued have been for individuals who have already served their sentences.
Much like how Governor Quinn receives recommendations from the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that aid in making his state-level pardon decisions, President Obama has the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney that reviews applications. However, in the end it is entirely up to the chief executive whether to approve or deny any given petition. The “Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses” is an authority of the President specifically stated in Article 2, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
These are the first pardon decisions Obama has issued in his second term as President. Previously, he granted nine in December 2010, eight in May 2011 and five in November 2011. Although this total of 39 is much lower than his predecessors—George W. Bush granted 189 pardons in his presidency, while Bill Clinton granted 396—it doesn’t necessarily indicate that acts of clemency will remain rare in his second term. It’s true that presidential pardons can be tricky political territory. Ford’s notorious pardon of Nixon was a public-relations disaster from which he never recovered, and Clinton’s pardon of financier/fugitive/Clinton-campaign-donor Marc Rich was heavily criticized. But so far all of Obama’s decisions have been non-controversial and have received very little media attention. Without a looming re-election battle, perhaps Obama will work his way through more pardon applications in the next few years. It’s a good sign that this first batch comes less than two months into his second term.