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Obama just commuted much of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. How do pardons and commutations work?

President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

A version of this post was originally published in 2015. We are republishing it today following President Obama’s decision Tuesday to commute much of the remaining sentence for Chelsea Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Obama also granted commutations to 208 other people and pardoned 64 people. 

During the administration of President Obama, officials have reviewed thousands of clemency petitions and granted commutations to scores of nonviolent drug offenders. On Tuesday, Obama commuted the sentences of 209 people — including Manning, sentenced to 35 years in the WikiLeaks case — and handed down dozens of pardons.

Commutations are not the same thing as presidential pardons, which sounds very obvious if you already know this, but just in case anyone out there is curious, here’s a breakdown of how the whole process works.

What a commutation or pardon means

People can apply for executive clemency — meaning pardons and commutations — and these requests go through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. The applications go through the deputy attorney general’s office before making their way to the White House.

When a sentence is commuted, that does not suggest that the person was innocent, according to the Justice Department. It does cut off a sentence, but it does not do away with what are known as “civil disabilities” — another way of saying that convicted felons can’t sit on federal juries or, in some cases, vote.

Obama to commute hundreds of federal drug sentences in final grants of clemency

A pardon, meanwhile, is something different. When presidents pardon people, they also don’t retroactively say that the person was innocent, but they do take away these civil disabilities. In some states, there are also ways for people can regain the right to vote without getting a presidential pardon, but a presidential pardon is still the only way for felons to be allowed to possess firearms.

An easy way to remember the difference: Pardons are generally granted after someone already served their time, while commutations typically happen when someone is behind bars, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit group that is participating in efforts to review prisoner applications.

The limits to what a pardon or commutation can do

Presidential pardons, meanwhile, do not expunge records, though criminal histories are supposed to be updated to show that the person was later pardoned.

Generally, pardons can help people when applying for jobs. In some states, pardons expunge the felony conviction from a person’s record, FAMM reports. Illinois allows for some felony convictions to be expunged or sealed, and in certain cases you don’t even need a pardon for that, while Kansas allows people to ask the courts to expunge records as well. (The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has more here.)

Chelsea Manning petitions Obama for clemency on her 35-year prison sentence

There are also limits to what kind of sentence a president can commute. While presidents can commute federal sentences, they cannot grant clemency for any state-level convictions. In those cases, governors or state boards handle the requests, and this varies from state to state. For example, in Georgia, only the state Board of Pardons and Paroles can commute death sentences.

The rarity of presidential commutations

Commutations do not happen very often, and they are much rarer than presidential pardons. While in office, Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 people, more than any other president in American history, according to the White House. He has also granted 212 pardons.

Further reading: One year out: What happens after President Obama commutes your prison sentence