Pardons Remain Rare in Minnesota

Minneapolis at dusk

First Lady of Minnesota Gwen Walz recently proclaimed at a rally for criminal justice reform that she wanted the number of pardon applications to increase and encouraged people who need a pardon to apply.[1] She complained that the number of applications for pardons decreased last year and that she wanted applicants to “flood the zone”.[2] It is unclear, however, if First Lady Walz’s push for more pardon petitions will actually help people in prison or burdened by criminal records.

Types of Pardons

In Minnesota, pardons are reviewed only twice a year by the three-person Minnesota Board of Pardons consisting of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.[3]

The Minnesota Board of Pardons may grant three types of relief:

  • Pardons
  • Commutations
  • Pardons extraordinary.

Pardons are defined as “an act of forgiveness that exempts the convicted person from the punishment imposed by law.”[4] Commutations are “the substitution of a lesser or different type of punishment for that imposed in the original sentence.”[5] Pardons and commutations may be granted to people who are currently serving active Minnesota sentences. People who have committed Minnesota crimes and have fully served their sentence may apply for a pardon extraordinary. A pardon extraordinary is “a statutorily-created relief granted to applicants who have served their sentences.”[6] If the Board grants a pardon extraordinary, the district court will issue an order setting aside the conviction. The applicant will no longer be required to report the conviction in most circumstances; however, the original conviction and the pardon extraordinary will appear on the applicant’s criminal record.

History of Pardons in Minnesota

Since 1992, the Minnesota Board of Pardons has been required to publish an annual report. According to the Board’s annual reports from 1992 to 2018, the Minnesota Board of Pardons has received 296 applications for either a pardon or commutation. Since 1992, the Board has never granted a pardon or commutation. Applications for pardons extraordinary are more common and are granted about 45.7% of the time. From 1992 to 2018, the Board received 881 applications for pardons extraordinary and granted 403 in total. The number of pardons, commutations, and commutations extraordinary is incredibly low considering the number of Minnesotans convicted of felonies every year.[7]

There is no clear reason why absolute pardons and commutations are never granted. The reporting requirement under Minn. Stat. § 638.075 does not require the Board to specify why it did or did not grant an application. However, for an absolute pardon or commutation, the Board must unanimously agree. Additionally, pardons and commutations are not typically viewed as politically advantageous.[8]

Reasons For the Low Number in Pardons

The low number of applications for pardons extraordinary may be, at least in part, a result of the extensive waiting periods that an applicant must complete before their application will ever be considered on the merits. An applicant seeking a pardon extraordinary for a conviction of a crime of violence[9] must wait 10 years after their sentence was discharged and have had no new criminal offenses (petty misdemeanors excluded).[10] A pardon extraordinary applicant convicted of a nonviolent offense must wait 5 years after their sentence was discharged with no new criminal offenses.[11] If an applicant commits a new offense, the waiting period will reset and start over after the applicant is discharged from probation for the new offense. These long waiting periods likely deflect many individuals from ever applying for pardon extraordinary especially when excessively long probation periods are considered.[12]

Another explanation for the low number of pardon extraordinary applications is that petitioning for an expungement may be a quicker route to achieve the same goal. The Board of Pardons only meets two times a year (a spring and fall date) and requires that applications be submitted many months in advance. Applications for the June 12, 2020 spring meeting were due December 1, 2019. Applications for the 2020 fall meeting (TBD) are due June 1, 2020. Expungement proceedings—though they may take a few months—are typically a much quicker process. However, not all criminal offenses are eligible for expungement and most also require that the petitioner has no new offenses over a certain number of years.

In the end, the best offense is a good defense. If you are facing criminal charges or have criminal convictions on your record, contact Meshbesher & Associates, P.A. via online form or call (612) 200-1526 for a free consultation about all legal options available to you.


[1] Brian Bakst, First Lady Gwen Walz, Groups Push for Changes in Minnesota Criminal Justice System, MPR News (February 19, 2020)

[2] Id.

[3] Board Meetings, Minnesota Department of Corrections (Last visited March 9, 2020)

[4] Minnesota Board of Pardons, 2018 Legislative Report (February, 2019)

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] In 2016, 16,927 individuals were sentenced to a felony offense in Minnesota. Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Report to the Legislature (January 12, 2018) MN Sentencing Guidelines Comm Report to the Legislature.pdf.

[8] See Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Matt Bevin Drew Outrage Over His Pardons. These Governors Have, Too, NY Times (Dec. 21, 2019)

[9] See Minn. Stat. § 624.712, subd. 5.

[10] Minn. Stat. § 638.02, subd. 2(1).

[11] Minn. Stat. § 638.02, subd. 2(2).

[12] Eligibility Requirements, Minnesota Department of Corrections (Last visited March 9, 2020)