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What Is Clemency?

Only the President of the U.S. has the power to grant clemency to individuals who have been convicted of federal crime.
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  • Written By: Bobby R. Goldsmith
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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Clemency is mercy toward one who offends, and in matters relating to criminal justice, clemency may be granted to those accused or convicted of a crime if the governor, president, prime minister or executive leader of a sovereign government decides to grant it. In the United States, only the governor of a state has the power to grant clemency for state crimes. Likewise, only the President of the United States has the power to grant clemency to those convicted of federal crimes. There are three types of clemency, and each is granted by an executive order regardless of the type of government involved. A state executive may grant a reprieve, a commutation of sentence, or a full pardon of charges.

A reprieve is granted by the presiding executive to prevent the enactment of a sentence from taking place. Often, reprieves are granted to allow those convicted more time to prove their innocence on appeal or through the discovery of new evidence. It may also be granted to allow more time to consider whether a full pardon or a commutation of the sentence is in order. Reprieves are most common in capital cases where they help to ensure that the convicted person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They do not confer an absolution of guilt and usually do not result in a termination of adjudication in the case.

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A commutation reduces or suspends the sentence of a convicted person. The decision to commute a sentence is usually based upon a consideration of evidence in conjunction with the circumstances surrounding the case. Commutation of the sentence does not vacate the conviction, it only reduces or eliminates the sentence.

Clemency may also involve granting a full or partial pardon to those convicted of crimes. A full pardon is granted in situations where the presiding executive finds that an injustice has been done or that new evidence has been found that exonerates the convicted person. A full pardon vacates — in most circumstances — the conviction giving the recipient a clear criminal record. Full pardons are often granted as the presiding executive prepares to leave office, due to the fact that many pardons might have political consequences.

Humanitarian concerns may also result in a grant of clemency. For example, in cases where the convicted person has a terminal medical condition, a reprieve, commutation or pardon may be granted if the executive finds that continued incarceration will cause undue suffering or in order to acquire needed medical treatments that could not be performed while the convicted person is incarcerated.

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