What is clemency?

Clemency can come in one of three forms: pardons, commutations of sentences, or reprieves. Executive clemency occurs when either a governor (for state crimes) or the President (for federal crimes) issues the pardon or other clemency. You must request a form of clemency and file with the proper reviewing agency in order to seek any sort of pardon or reprieve. Learn how below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Clemency under the criminal justice system is the act by an executive member of the government of extending mercy to a convicted individual. In the United States, clemency is granted by a governor for state crimes and by the presidential pardon power to people convicted of violating federal law. Granting of clemency requests can take one of three forms: a reprieve, a commutation of sentence, or a pardon.

So what is executive clemency and what is the procedure to file for it? What is clemency power? Read on for answers.

What is clemency in law? If you’re still unclear, a legal expert can help you.

If you have legal questions, enter your ZIP code below for free advice.

What is a reprieve?

A reprieve is given after criminal convictions to suspend the execution of a prison sentence in order to give the prisoner time to find ways to have it reduced. With respect to capital cases, a reprieve of the death sentence is given to suspend the execution of the death penalty for a period of time to consider whether or not it should be imposed.

This could lead to the lesser sentence of life in prison or a set number of years. In some cases, it could lead to a broader appeal of the case in general.

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When are sentences commuted?

A commutation of sentence takes place when the conditions of the court-ordered sentence, generally one of imprisonment, receive a reduction to a lesser penalty or jail term. This type of clemency process does not void the conviction but rather lessens the consequences.

For example, individuals sentenced to the death penalty could have their sentence commuted to a life sentence for murder. However, clemency in death penalty cases is extremely rare.

What happens when a pardon is granted?

When a pardon is granted, the convicted offender receives forgiveness for the crime and its penalty, though it does not grant a judgment of innocence. Leaders such as the head of state or government generally grant it when the convicted individual has fulfilled his or her debt to society or is somehow otherwise worthy of being forgiven the crime. A pardon does not erase the criminal conviction, but it can in some jurisdictions remove some of the disqualifications caused by it. Some refer to these as conditional pardons when the subject is currently incarcerated and the head of state chooses to modify or end a sentence.

In U.S. history, modern presidents have nearly always granted pardons or clemency to people on their last day in office or shortly before leaving office. This is also shortly before executive clemency power ends.

In general, acts of clemency are often extended for humanitarian reasons, such as to an aged and ill inmate who needs specialized medical care. It is also extended to offenders when there is doubt concerning guilt or when unjust sentences are imposed. Finally, in some cases, clemency can be extended as a favor to an executive’s political friends or cronies.

A clemency request must be submitted through applications or petitions before it is granted. In most jurisdictions, these applications first must be filed with a reviewing agency such as the state board of pardon and parole before being seen by the appropriate government head.

How Common Is Clemency in the Courts?

Criminal justice reform continues to drive many clemency applications from people who feel unfairly targeted. Everything from the first questioning and arrest to the sentence imposed can lead to requests for clemency. It’s not just a simple way to wipe out a criminal record as it’s often published in the news. While countless applications are filed, it’s rare for any head of state to actually grant it. Any one application form has to go through a lengthy review through multiple administrative channels, and then the head of state is briefed on the case and their political interests.

If you’re considering an application, make sure you work with an experienced attorney. Heads of state typically don’t like to overrule the courts. So it’s often more effective to seek out other legal remedies. This is true whether you’re talking about a short-term prison stay or death row.

What is clemency in law? If you’re still unclear, a legal expert can help you.

If you want to file for clemency or have legal questions, enter your ZIP code below for free advice.

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