Pardons and the power of forgiveness

By Maya Weeks and Jack E. Cohoon, Esq.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “the simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness.” Forgiveness is a powerful idea that is built into South Carolina law in the form of the pardon process. A pardon forgives an individual for the legal consequences of a conviction.[1] It is a powerful tool, and people are often surprised to learn that each year, between 60 and 70 percent of pardon applications are approved. [2]

Over a third of South Carolinians have a criminal record. [3] Many convictions are for “youthful indiscretions” from many years ago. Often, people still find themselves held back by old mistakes long after they have addressed the underlying issues that contributed to their contact with the criminal justice system.

A criminal conviction can have many legal effects beyond the immediate punishment imposed by the court. These effects are known as “collateral consequences.” The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction lists 659 different collateral consequences of a conviction under South Carolina law, and 941 collateral consequences under federal law. These include barriers to an occupational license, a job in local or state government, benefits programs, and housing. A pardon can remove these consequences. Pardons also serve as evidence of rehabilitation that can give employers peace of mind about hiring someone with a record.

Pardons have similarities to expungements but differ in important ways. An expungement removes a conviction from an individual’s criminal record. A pardon does not remove the conviction from an individual’s record but, instead, causes the conviction to be listed as pardoned. When completing a job application, an individual does not generally have to list an expunged conviction. However, an individual with a pardon should usually list the conviction and then indicate that it was pardoned. The requirements for an expungement are very technical and specific, and many types of convictions are not eligible for expungement. In contrast, anyone who has completed their sentence, including probation, and paid all restitution, is eligible to apply for a pardon. [4]

The most effective strategy to help people overcome a criminal record is often to apply for expungement of those items that are eligible for expungement and to apply for pardon of any remaining items that cannot be expunged.

The Board of Paroles and Pardons—not the Governor—determines who receives a pardon. Individuals seeking a pardon must complete an application, provide three letters of support from unrelated people who know the applicant, and pay a $100 application fee. It is essential that the application list all arrests and convictions in South Carolina and in other states. The application should clearly state the reason for seeking the pardon. The letters of support should specifically explain why the applicant should be granted the pardon. The Board will conduct a thorough investigation of the applicant. If the applicant’s crime had victims, they will be notified of the pardon application and may express their opinion about whether a pardon should be granted.

Seven to nine months after the application is filed, the Board will schedule a hearing. At the hearing, the applicant can present witnesses to speak on their behalf and answer the board members’ questions. The Board will take a vote at the end of the hearing. If at least two-thirds of the members vote in favor of the pardon, then the Board will issue a certificate of pardon and law enforcement records will be updated to reflect the pardon.

South Carolina’s pardon process is a powerful tool that can help individuals receive forgiveness, get a second chance, and open  new opportunities. A knowledgeable attorney can maximize your likelihood of receiving a pardon and can coordinate the pardon process with other tools, such as expungement, to help you achieve your goals.

Maya Weeks is a law clerk at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel. Maya is a third-year law student at the University of South Carolina School of Law and is simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice. Contact her at

Jack E. Cohoon is Special Counsel at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel. He has nearly 14 years of experience helping clients overcome barriers to employment and has successfully represented clients through the expungement and pardon processes. Contact him at

Information or interaction on this page should not be construed as establishing a client-attorney relationship or as legal advice. For advice about your specific situation, please consult one of our attorneys.

[1] South Carolina’s pardon process can only pardon South Carolina convictions and is not effective to pardon federal or out-of-state convictions.

[2] Lowcountry mom pardoned for 20-year-old crimes. Should SC do more to help ex-offenders? The Island Packet. (accessed Aug. 25, 2020).

[3] 1,731,700 individuals in South Carolina have a criminal record. Bureau of Just. Stat., Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2016, U.S. DEP’T OF JUST. (Feb. 2018), at Table 1, available at (accessed Aug. 25, 2020); 4,625,364 individuals estimated to live in SC in 2016. U.S. Census, American Factfinder (accessed Aug. 25, 2020).

[4] Parolees who have successfully completed five years under supervision and paid all restitution are eligible to apply for a pardon, as are inmates who face extraordinary circumstances, such as terminal illness. S.C. Code § 24-21-950(A)(3).