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What's the difference between a commutation and a pardon?

There's been quite a bit of furor in the news these days over some recent presidential pardons and commutations. Both of those actions fall under the category of post-conviction relief. Here's what you should know about the differences between having your sentence commuted and getting a pardon, as they are not the same thing.

What's a pardon?

Pardons can be granted by presidents in almost all cases (and by state governors in some). It generally means that a prisoner's sentence is ended and the rights they lost through conviction (like the ability to run for office or own a gun) are restored.

Most people are surprised to learn, however, that a pardon doesn't actually erase the defendant's record or mean that they are declared innocent. In some cases, a pardon does mean relief from fines, restitution or forfeitures (if remission was also granted).

What's a commutation?

Commutations, like pardons, can be granted by a president (or by the state governor in a process called clemency). In some cases, sentences have even been commuted due to changes in state law, such as when a state abolishes the death penalty and commutes all remaining inmates on death row to life in prison. Commutations reduce the prisoner's sentence. In some cases, that may mean their release from prison significantly sooner than they might otherwise expect.

A commutation does not, however, give the convicted person any other kind of relief. Their fines and restitution typically still have to be paid and they may still face restrictions voting or owning a gun. It also does not change their criminal record in any way.

For the most part, it's smart not to rely on the idea that you can get a pardon or get your sentence commuted. That rarely happens. If you're charged with a federal crime, it's far smarter to work on building a good defense strategy.

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