Three convicted felons on Tuesday were legally forgiven of their crimes in President Joe Biden’s first use of his presidential clemency powers.
Those granted presidential pardons include a Texas woman who served seven years in prison for attempting to transport drugs for her boyfriend; a Georgia man who faced charges for letting marijuana dealers use his pool hall to sell drugs and the nation’s first Black Secret Service agent on a presidential detail, who has for decades said he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted.
Biden also commuted the sentences of 75 Americans, who are serving time for low-level drug offenses and have displayed efforts to rehabilitate themselves, the White House said.
In a statement, Biden called America a nation of “laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation.”
Here’s what you need to know about the presidential power of executive clemency.
Biden’s first clemecy action: Biden to pardon three felons, commute sentences of 75 others, in first grants of clemency
Different forms of clemency
The president’s clemency powers, or the ability to forgive Americans of crimes, is defined in the Constitution, which says presidents can “grant reprieves and pardons” for offenses against the US The only offense the president can’t pardon is impeachment.
There are at least five forms of clemency the president is allowed, according to a January 2020 Congressional Research Service report: pardon, amnesty, commutation, reprieve and the remission of fines and forfeitures.
The presidential pardon, or full pardon, is the most well-known forgiveness. It absolves a person of wrongdoing and restores any civil rights lost “without qualification.”
Amnesty is practically the same, except instead of absolving just one person of a crime, it relieves a group, according to the CRS report. For example, President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers in 1977.
Commutations don’t entirely remove criminal punishments; they make them less potent. Usually, that means reducing a prison sentence brought down by a federal judge, the CRS report says. The president can also delay the execution of a sentence via reprieve or cancel criminal fines, penalties and forfeitures.
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How have other presidents used their clemency powers?
Presidents of the past haven’t hesitated to use the power to forgive criminals, and in the last 100 years, that only picked up pace.
The first presidential pardon was made by America’s first president, George Washington. He used the promise of a pardon to stop a group of farmers and distillers from Pennsylvania’s violent protests of the federal government’s ban on whiskey and other liquor, which later came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
Other pardons include former President Richard historic Nixon’s pardon by his vice president, Gerald Ford, who took over the Oval Office when Nixon resigned in wake of the Watergate scandal, and former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of his brother, Roger, who was convicted on drug charges.
Presidential pardons peaked during the former President Franklin Roosevelt’s time in office. During his four terms, Roosevelt granted 2,819 pardons, many of which were wartime offenses from World War I. He also commuted 488 prison sentences and remitted 477 fines, according to the Department of Justice’s archives.
In recent administrations, the rate of pardons has been significantly slowed. Former President George W. Bush granted an average of 24 pardons a year, and Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump granted an average of 27 and 36 pardons a year, USA TODAY previously reported.
However, Obama issued a record-breaking number of commutations, reducing 1,715 sentences during his time in office, mostly to low-level drug offenders, according to the Justice Department.
Abuses of power
The Harvard Law Review describes the presidential pardon power as a “near blank check” among the Constitution’s other checks and balances, meaning there’s not much the other branches of government can do about a president’s decision to pardon someone.
“The pardon power is quite broad and absolute, but there are limits,” said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a former Bush administration ethics lawyer.
For example, a president can’t grant a pardon in exchange for money or else of value, which would amount to bribery, or criminal grant a pardon in exchange for silence in a pending investigation, which would be anything obstruction of justice, Painter said.
More: White House: Trump ‘unfit’ for office after suggesting possible pardons for Jan. 6 defendants
Most presidents in recent years have issued at least one pardon that raised eyebrows, but several of Trump’s pardons received backlash as potential abuses of power.
“President Trump abused his pardon power by granting pardons to multiple defendants and potential witnesses in the Russia investigation and by dangling pardons for others in an apparent attempt to influence cooperation with the investigation,” Painter said.
Painter said that he doesn’t see those issues replicated with Biden’s pardons thus far.
Contributing: Joey Garrison
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pardons, commutations and other presidential clemency: What to know