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Removing Barriers to Applying for a Presidential Pardon

Illustration of a man reviewing papers


How might we remove barriers to applying for a Presidential pardon, especially for people without legal assistance? 

In partnership with the Office of the Pardon Attorney (PARDON)

The Office of the Pardon Attorney (PARDON) in the U.S. Department of Justice helps the President make decisions about issuing pardons and reducing the sentences for people with convictions under federal law, District of Columbia Code, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While the Constitution grants Presidents the authority to pardon anyone who meets the requirements, for over 130 years they have relied on the Office of the Pardon Attorney to provide neutral advice and expertise. PARDON receives, reviews, and investigates applications and provides advice and recommendations to the President.

Context: Re-entering Society After Incarceration

People with criminal records often face barriers to employment, housing, education, and to the exercise of their basic rights as citizens of this country such as voting or serving on a jury.

Moment that Matters: Applying for a Presidential Pardon

One way to lift those barriers is a Presidential pardon, which is an act of forgiveness. It does not erase the criminal record, but it can help people restore basic rights. Historically, Presidents have used pardons to address unequal or unnecessarily severe sentences, respond to new information, acknowledge good conduct, and remove barriers to successful reentry into society.

The pardon application is long and so is the pardon process. No one is guaranteed a pardon if they complete the application. However, the application process is the most consistent means of applying for a pardon across administrations.

A Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons released in 2021 found that about eight out of ten application packages were incomplete or unresponsive in some way.

Case files where applicants took steps to correct the issues were associated with a clemency rate higher than the overall average. These findings represent an opportunity to clarify requirements not only to reduce the burden on applicants and PARDON staff, but also to improve outcomes.

The Opportunity: Breaking Down Barriers to Applying

The same analysis found that the people who apply for and receive a pardon are not representative of the over one million individuals in the United States who are eligible.

Additionally, “though most petitions are submitted without the assistance of counsel, those where [PARDON's] files indicate the petitioner was represented by an attorney have a markedly higher clemency rate than the overall average."

In the 2022 Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable report, PARDON made a commitment to streamline and simplify applications and processes for petitions seeking executive clemency, including requests for pardon.

Our Approach: Designing for Access to Justice

PARDON partnered with Access DOJ to facilitate a human-centered design process to gather and analyze feedback about people’s experiences with the form. Access DOJ also researched simplification efforts for pardon applications at the state level as well as visual design principles to inform the revision.

Learn: What We Heard

Access DOJ organized usability testing sessions with seven applicants and clemency-focused organizations and asked open-ended questions to better understand their experiences and perceptions. We heard that:

  • The application form is daunting. It’s very lengthy and difficult to navigate.

  • The questions can be difficult to understand and applicants often assume the information requested will be used against them.

  • Many feel they cannot answer without getting legal advice, but that can be difficult and expensive to attain.

“The [Pardon] application process is a bit overwhelming. People are scared.”
– Clemency-focused Organization

Create: Re-designing the Form

The feedback helped us identify design principles to describe the improved experience we sought to create through changes to the form.

Form Re-design Principles

  • Easy to navigate – Organize the content in a simple and straightforward way.

  • Easy to understand – Use language that is easy to understand.

  • Transparent – Explain why certain questions are asked, give examples of information that would be helpful, describe what happens after PARDON receives an application, and clearly explain the benefits of applying for pardon.

  • Respectful and efficient – Focus questions on information that cannot be easily attained through other sources and that are essential to the review of the application to reduce burdens on both applicants and PARDON staff.

With these principles in mind, we made dozens of changes to the application. Examples include:

  • Eliminating the requirement for notarized signature pages, to reduce the cost and time burden on applicants and their character references.

  • Asking for less information about applicants’ histories, to streamline the application and make it easier to complete.

  • Reframing questions using plain language.

  • Adding user-focused resources, including a table of contents, tips, and checklists.

  • Adding guiding questions and explaining the reason for the questions to help people understand how to respond.

  • Removing unnecessary questions.

  • Combining instructions with the application to follow best practices in form design.

After making initial updates, the team did additional usability testing with five participants to see if the changes improved people’s experiences. This helped us further refine the application.

The Result: An Improved Form

Original Application Updated Application
2 separate PDFs (“Information and Instructions” and “Petition”) 1 PDF (combined instructions and petition form)
Total pages: 30 Total pages: 24 (20% reduction)
Word count: 7,621 Word count: 5,307 (31% reduction)
Reading level: 13.2 Reading level: 10.4 (22% reduction)
Sentence length: 20.4 words Sentence length: 15 words (26.5% reduction)
Last updated: July 2016 Updated: May 2024


Download the Updated Application

Evaluate: Measuring Burden and Accessibility

Initial feedback from PARDON staff and advocates on the revised form has been positive.

“The streamlining of the information we are gathering will definitely impact the process, both in time spent going back to petitioners, but also in being able to review more efficiently.”
– PARDON Staff

“This (form) levels the playing field for even those without counsel to talk about their journey and have access to the process.”
– Clemency-focused Organization

Additionally, PARDON, Access DOJ, and DOJ’s evaluation team are collaborating to evaluate whether the revised form reduces burdens to both applicants and PARDON staff.

Special thanks to The Lab at OPM as well as the pardon recipients and clemency-focused organizations who gave feedback.

What’s Next?

For more information about this project, please contact

Updated June 6, 2024