What is clemency?

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


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

Commuting a Sentence

A commutation of sentence takes place when the sentence, generally one of imprisonment, is reduced to a lesser penalty or jail term. This type of clemency does not void the conviction.


When a pardon is granted, the convicted offender is forgiven the crime and its penalty. A head of state or government generally grants 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 conviction, but it can in some jurisdictions remove some of the disqualifications caused by it.

In general, clemency is 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 the sentence given is excessive. Finally, in some cases, clemency can be extended as a favor to an executive's political friends or cronies.

Clemency must often be requested by application or petition 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.