WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On his final full day in office, President Bush issued commutations for two former U.S. Border Patrol agents convicted in 2006 of shooting and wounding an unarmed illegal immigrant -- suspected of drug smuggling at the time -- and then covering it up.
The prison sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean will now end March 20.
Ramos had received an 11-year prison sentence; Compean had received a 12-year term. They began serving their sentences in January 2007.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney was still reviewing the clemency request when Bush made his decision, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
"The president has reviewed the circumstances of this case as a whole and the conditions of confinement and believes the sentences they received are too harsh and that they, and their families, have suffered enough for their crimes," a senior administration official said.
"Commuting their sentences does not diminish the seriousness of their crimes. Ramos and Compean are convicted felons who violated their oaths to uphold the law and have been severely punished," the official stated.
"This commutation gives them an opportunity to return to their families and communities, but both men will have to carry the burden of being convicted felons and the shame of violating their oaths for the rest of their lives."
The official noted that both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have supported a commutation, including President-elect Barack Obama's incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Texas GOP Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.
The head of the labor union representing Border Patrol agents told CNN Radio he was "grateful" that Bush commuted the sentences but questioned why the prison terms won't end until March 20.
"I would be quite curious to learn why they have to wait another two months for an unjust sentence," said Rich Pierce, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
He said the union's ultimate goal would be for the men to get their Border Patrol jobs back.
The shooting happened February 17, 2005, on the border southeast of El Paso, Texas.
During their trial, Ramos and Compean said the illegal immigrant, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, had brandished a gun while actively resisting arrest. Aldrete-Davila, however, said he was unarmed and was attempting to surrender when Compean attempted to beat him with a shotgun.
Aldrete-Davila was shot while fleeing toward the Rio Grande.
Ramos and Compean were ultimately convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon, lying about the incident and violating Aldrete-Davila's Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.
After receiving immunity to testify in the case against the two agents, Aldrete-Davila was arrested in 2007 on charges of bringing more than 750 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
The case quickly became a political flash point, with advocates of tighter border controls defending the agents and civil liberties groups saying that the agents had used illegal and excessive force against Aldrete-Davila.
Bush has granted 189 pardons and 11 commutations over his eight years in office, far fewer than Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in their two-term administrations. During the final months of the Bush administration, speculation has swirled around the question of whether former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby would be granted the presidential favor.
Libby was convicted in March of 2007 of four counts of lying and impeding a federal investigation into the leak of information that revealed that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA operative.
Among the more notable people who have applied for -- but not received -- some form of clemency are: former Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, R-California, who was convicted of receiving bribes; publishing executive Conrad Black, who was found guilty of fraud; former junk bold salesman Michael Milken, who pleaded guilty to securities fraud; and former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, convicted of accounting fraud.
The parents of John Walker Lindh, who was given a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to supporting terrorists in Afghanistan, held a news conference in December urging Bush to commute their son's sentence.
There is a long tradition of presidents issuing pardons and commutations during their final days in office. Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich during his last hours in office, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
A commutation reduces a convict's prison term, but the conviction remains on the person's record. A pardon, however, wipes the slate clean by erasing the record of the conviction.
A president has the sole authority to grant clemency to whomever he chooses, although a Justice Department office usually reviews applications and makes recommendations after considering such standards as a person's degree of remorse and ability to lead a responsible and productive life after release.
Those applying for a pardon through the Justice Department are required to wait at least five years after their conviction or release from confinement