What Presidential Pardons Mean for Probation Officers

At the end of every presidency there are always news reports about presidential pardons. This is a special case where the president can forgive specific criminal convictions of criminals. Some of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) people who have received a presidential pardon include:

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  • Richard Nixon – pardoned for his involvement in Watergate by Gerald Ford
  • Jimmy Hoffa – labor union leader pardoned by Richard Nixon for fraud and bribery
  • Brigham Young – pardoned by James Buchanan for his role in the Utah War
  • Jefferson Davis – the leader of the Confederate States of America during the Revolutionary War was symbolically pardoned by Jimmy Carter
  • Eugene Debs – union leader convicted of sedition was pardoned by Warren Harding
  • Robert E. Lee – Confederate Army commander symbolically pardoned by Gerald Ford
  • Elliot Abrams and Caspar Weinberger – pardoned by George HW Bush for their roles in the Iran-Contra Affair
  • Patty Hearst – received a commutation from Jimmy Carter and a full pardon from Bill Clinton for her role in bank robberies after she had been abducted by a left-wing US terrorist group

At the time of this writing there are 18 days left in the term of President Barack Obama. Thus far he has pardoned 1,324 people, almost as much as his previous five predecessors combined:

  • George W Bush – pardoned 200 people
  • Bill Clinton – pardoned 459 people
  • George HW Bush – pardoned 77 people
  • Ronald Reagan – pardoned 406 people
  • Jimmy Carter – pardoned 566 people

Probation Officers and Presidential Pardons

A presidential pardon raises interesting legal questions. Can a president declare a person should be released from incarceration but still be on probation? What if probation is part of someone’s sentence and they are pardoned?

According to the federal US Justice Department, the president can only pardon those convicted of federal crimes. Therefore, anyone convicted of a state crime is not eligible for a presidential pardon, only a gubernatorial pardon.

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A presidential pardon does not erase a criminal conviction from a person’s record, including if probation is part of this sentence. These aspects remain a part of a person’s record, with an additional note detailing the presidential pardon. However the person who is pardoned no longer has any obligation to the criminal justice system regarding the crime(s) for which they were pardoned.

Whenever a presidential pardon is granted the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) notifies the US Probation Office. If probation is part of a pardoned person’s sentence this is also forgiven.

Pardons are granted in response to specific criminal convictions. It is possible for a person to be pardoned for one federal crime but still be incarcerated for a different federal or state crime. If probation is a condition of a crime not covered by a pardon, then probation officers and the criminal are both obligated to abide by the court’s orders.