Sen. Dick Durbin caught a lot of flak last week by asking President George W. Bush to commute the federal corruption sentence of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan. But it was a reminder that the commander in chief is also the forgiver in chief. Over the last 21/4 centuries, U.S. presidents have granted pardons and commuted sentences for more than 28,000 criminals. "All a pardon does is put an end to all forms of punishment," says P.S. Ruckman, an expert on presidential pardons and a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford. It means that the recipient gets back the full rights of a citizen, such as voting and serving on a jury. It doesn't indicate that the president thinks the person was innocent. (Few presidents explain their pardons.) In fact, some people argue that, by accepting a pardon, a person is acknowledging guilt. The president can also commute a sentence, and set the inmate free immediately or at some future date. But the recipient of a commutation doesn't get back the rights of a citizen, Ruckman explained. That's why some people are given a sentence commutation by one president and a pardon by a later one.
Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune