How do you get a presidential pardon?


Did you get wild and crazy last night? Murder a half dozen people who didn’t deserve it? It happens to the best of us. So how are you going to avoid the chair? Presidents can write those get-out-of-jail-free cards called pardons. But how to snag one?

You’re in luck! Now is a good time. Democratic presidents grant more pardons, more pardons are granted when crime is low and the number of pardons increases during wartime. (If you want to skip the rest of this post and sprint out to the Fedex box now, I understand.)

This paper develops an economic model of presidential pardons (including commutations and other clemency grants). The model assumes that the number of pardons depends both on the expected benefits and costs of applying for a pardon and the president’s calculation of his net political benefits from granting a pardon. We test the model using data on presidential pardons over the 1900–2005 period. Consistent with the predictions of the model, we find that increases in the likelihood of being pardoned and in the number of federal prisoners (and persons released from prison) have a positive effect on applications and that increases in the number of persons paroled (a substitute for a pardon) and in the time from conviction to pardon (which lowers the benefits of a pardon) reduce the number of applications. We also find that Democratic presidents (who we expect to be less tough on crime) are more likely than Republican presidents to grant pardons, that the crime rate has a negative impact on pardons and that the number of pardons increased during Prohibition and during wartime and postwar periods.

Source: “The Economics of Presidential Pardons and Commutations” from The Journal of Legal Studies

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