It's possible for a U.S. citizen to run for President while in prison, as with Eugene Debs.

Suppose a prisoner runs and wins. Let's also suppose that the crimes in for which the prisoner is serving time for are undisputed and terrible, but for some reason the public generally finds that prisoner better than any alternatives.

Now elected, does the prisoner stay in prison and attempt to fulfill their official duties from a cell (not as unfeasible at it used to be if we permit the usage of computer networking)? Can they pardon themselves and walk free? Would they go on parole for four years?

  • 3
    Inspired by reading a summary from 2000 of the OLC's opinions on whether sitting Presidents are (at least temporarilly) immune from criminal prosecution.
    – agc
    Sep 1, 2020 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


Whether a President can pardon themselves is somewhat open for debate, no one has tried it and it's not explicitly allowed or disallowed. The other and more likely occurrence would be that the vice president takes over until the president is no longer in jail, pursuant to the 25th amendment. Presumably a vice president would pardon in such a situation, this would be the way an elected president would get out of jail. It's also possible that the president would be allowed accommodations to serve in jail or be allowed to serve their sentence in the white house. These option would require some approval from courts or prison wardens, but would likely be granted to a president. The need to always have a president would likely drive the 25th amendment option to be invoked before accommodations could be put in place.

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    Should mention the caveat about having to be in federal custody.
    – dandavis
    Sep 1, 2020 at 22:10
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    The situation is different if they are incarcerated by one of the states, vs the federal government. Most prisoners in the U.S. are held under state authority, not federal. Sep 2, 2020 at 16:14
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    To clarify what Dandavis and RBarryYoung are hinting at, some people think Presidential Pardons can be given for any crime. In reality, they are Federal Pardons, so if you're incarcerated by one of the states, you're not in federal custody and the President can't pardon you.
    – Davy M
    Sep 2, 2020 at 20:56
  • It's legally simpler for the president to be pardoned by a state governor rather than having to pardon themself (assuming the state constitution allows pardons), so perhaps better to be in state rather than federal jail, at least if you have a sympathetic governor.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 19 at 13:41

This would be most exceptional. There is no precedent, and the how matters would play out would depend in the nature of the elected person, the nature of the crime, the make-up of Congress and many other details:

For example, suppose that John Brown, instead of being executed was incarcerated, and then elected to the Presidency by a (much more radical) republican college of electors. He could justifiably claim that the election was a vindication of his radical abolitionist stand and that he should be released (although as he was convicted under Virginian law, he couldn't pardon himself)

A president-elect who is found guilty between election day and the inauguration may find themselves an embarrassment to their party. If you lose the support of your own party, you don't last long in a system in which you can be removed by a super-majority vote in the Senate, as Nixon found.

The situation in which a person, incarcerated for a crime with no political aspect, is elected president seems unbelievably far fetched. In such a hypothesis, it is pure speculation as to what would happen next.

  • 2
    We got so far as a previously sentenced person got one third of the vote for Congressional office. (If I recall correctly, conviction happened between winning the primary and running in the general, but I could have it backwards.)
    – Joshua
    Sep 2, 2020 at 15:27
  • 1
    There are most likely precedents, just not in the USA.
    – gerrit
    Sep 2, 2020 at 16:46

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