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Board of Pardons

Part of the executive branch of state government authorized to grant pardons, and restore civil and political rights, to individuals convicted of crimes. A pardon, in the legal sense, releases an individual from punishment or penalty, but does not necessarily exonerate them of guilt.

Unlike the federal government, where the president possesses the power to pardon persons convicted of felonies, many states have delegated this executive branch function to boards of pardons. These boards review pardon applications and determine if individuals have demonstrated that they have acted constructively. Pardon applicants who have been law-abiding citizens and who have stable work and family histories have the best chance of receiving pardons. Review boards are empowered through state constitutions to issue pardons or, in some cases, to recommend pardons to the governor.

The membership of boards of pardons varies from state to state. For example, in Georgia the governor appoints those who sit on the five-member board, while in Minnesota the board is composed of the governor, chief justice of the state supreme court, and the state attorney general. Where a statute does not designate constitutional officers (e.g., governor or SECRETARY OF STATE) pardon boards generally consist of individuals with experience or an interest in the criminal justice system. Members may be current or former law enforcement officers, correctional officials, lawyers, educators, and business people. Board members usually serve four- or five-year terms. In many states the board also reviews applications for PAROLE (early and conditional release) from prison, but the popularity of mandatory sentencing has greatly reduced the need for these boards to conduct parole reviews.

Eligibility for pardons is governed by statute. Generally, a person convicted of a crime of violence must wait ten years since the discharge of the sentence and cannot be on parole or PROBATION. A person convicted of a nonviolent crime generally must wait five years before applying for a pardon. Some pardon boards also allow an applicant to seek relief earlier for good cause. However, these pardons are difficult to obtain because pardon boards usually must vote unanimously to grant them.

An applicant must file the appropriate paperwork with the board of pardons. The board then notifies the sentencing judge and prosecutor of the hearing date and time. Many states also notify crime victims of the hearing date and publish notices in local newspapers where the crime occurred. At the hearing, the applicant explains to the board why he or she is deserving of a pardon and presents character witnesses. Judges, prosecutors, and victims may also testify.

The pardon board considers all testimony and any written submissions before voting. Boards of pardon may grant an absolute pardon, which is also called a full or unconditional pardon. In contrast, the board may grant a conditional pardon, which must state the terms and conditions on which it was granted. A person who receives an absolute or conditional pardon still bears a criminal record and is required to disclose this information on employment applications and similar forms. However, pardon boards may issue a pardon extraordinary that sets aside the conviction and effectively erases the person's criminal record. With a pardon extraordinary the recipient does not have to disclose the conviction except in a judicial proceeding.

Pardon board decisions are not appealable to a court of law. A person who is denied a pardon usually will face an uphill battle to secure it at a future time. For example, in Minnesota two of the three pardon board members must grant permission for the filing of a second application.


Abadinsky, Howard. 2002. Probation and Parole: Theory and Practice. 8th ed. New York: Prentice Hall.

Klofas, John, et al. 2003. Criminal Justice Organizations: Administration and Management. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

Miller, Vivien, and John David Smith. 2001. Crime, Sexual Violence, and Clemency: Florida's Pardon Board and Penal System in the Progressive Era. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bill of Particulars to William Benson Bryant