The Expungement Center is dedicated to helping Americans everywhere understand their rights about their public records. We publish helpful information about record sealing and record expungement for states where it is available.

Getting arrested can be a life-changer. Even a hefty ticket can really scar your record and make getting jobs or loans difficult. For first-time offenders especially, it just seems unfair to carry a criminal record around for a one-time mistake. Luckily, in many cases, that criminal record is not as permanent as it seems.

The criminal justice system, like most aspects of government and society, is not without flaw. It is subject to political climate and human error. Sometimes, a charge or verdict that is issued by a court system can be altered. Obviously such a change benefits greatly the plaintiff in the case. Two common ways that a court’s decision are altered are expungement and pardon.

Pardon vs Expungement
There is a big difference between pardon and expungement. To different extents, each serves to help exonerate (clear the name of) a convicted person. Each state in the United States has its own laws concerning expungement and pardons. On top of that, the federal government also has regulations concerning the two processes. When seeking either one, the first thing to do is research local laws and other applicable regulations.

Though laws do vary, there are certainly some common characteristics in all jurisdictions in the United States. A pardon, generally speaking, is the reversal of a conviction or sentencing. It can occur at any time in the legal process, during the trial itself all the way into the period of incarceration. This process completely nullifies the original sentencing with no further possibility of penalty for the original crime.

This legal forgiveness is issued for a variety of reasons. Often, these are the result of political climate. A person that is charged and incarcerated for political issues may find herself freed with a change in regime. More commonly in the United States, pardons are offered to persons that somehow show themselves to be rehabilitated. In this case, the person has usually served some amount of time in prison already. A more tragic cause occurs when someone who is already incarcerated is proven to actually be innocent. Again, probably the person has already serve time.

One of the most well-known abilities to pardon belongs to the President of the United States. Presidents have the power to pardon any prisoner in the United States. Historically, presidential pardons come towards the end of a president’s tenure (often known as eighth-hour pardons). These often go to quite controversial cases, such as President Bill Clinton’s use of the power to release his half-brother, Roger Clinton.

On a state level, many governors have the power to release jailed prisoners or clear criminal records for former prisoners. This process often begins with a petition by concerned constituents. Dissatisfied by judicial proceedings, citizens can arrange a petition to free someone recently (or not-so-recently) convicted of a crime.

Commutation is a similar power held by presidents. While shortening the sentence, commutation does not overturn an original conviction.

When considering pardon vs expungement, one important thing to realize is that the former is a heavily politicized process, whereas expungement is a more simply clerical matter. The latter process requires political clout somewhere along the line, such as the use of a petition or personal favor. (California is a notable exception and has an official process for request.) Expungmenet does not.

Expungement is the really the best option for “erasing” criminal records. It refers to the sealing of court records regarding a conviction. That basically means that the crime never occurred. This may seem excessively forgiving at first but expungement is usually used in cases with less serious crimes, such as misdemeanors. Where pardons may “forgive” persons convicted of more heinous crimes (including robbery, assault, and drug trafficking), expungement usually relates to milder issues.

Expunge my record
By now it should be clear that if you are seeking some method of clearing your criminal record, this is most likely the best solution. In most states, this process is relatively easy and straightforward.

Again, state laws vary. For the most part, though, it is granted by a judge. Often this is (or even has to be) the same judge that issued the conviction in the first place. Usually some punitive action should have already occurred. One very common situation involves traffic tickets. The fine is paid, then the judge agrees to seal the record. It is as if the whole thing never happened. A court appearance is usually involved and perhaps filing some paperwork.

To find out about options in your area, start at the county courthouse. They would have any necessary paperwork, such as expungement forms, and can definitely advise you on how to get record expunged. Some information may be available online. Check websites like for premade forms usable in many proceedings.

Bring it up with the judge at your hearing, trial, or sentencing. Do not expect a lengthy conversation—ask the question, give a reason, and the judge may or may not assent. In some states, this point won’t apply because the process occurs outside the courtroom. Fill out the necessary paperwork to clear your record in those states. The decision will still be made by a judge or other judicial official, just not in an open courtroom.

Getting a ticket, getting arrested, or going to jail is not the end of the world. There are consequences involved in each case but luckily, you can mitigate those consequences if you take the right steps. Serve your time or pay your ticket. At the same time, make it clear that you have learned from the mistake and won’t head down that road again. Then, research processes in your area that can help clean your record and/or obtain release from incarceration.

The most important piece of advice in situations like these is to express remorse, show that you have learned your lesson, and carefully follow any instructions regarding paperwork or requests. Legal processes are available to make sure that a one-time mistake doesn’t haunt you for the rest of your life.