Executive clemency is the power that the chief executive of a government has to pardon, to commute the punishment of, or to reduce the punishment of a convicted criminal. The word clemency means to be merciful, gentle, lenient, forgiving and compassionate. Therefore when executive clemency is granted, it is often done so as a gesture of mercy and leniency towards a convicted criminal.
The power to grant executive clemency is generally granted to or vested in the chief executive of the government that has jurisdiction over the convicted criminal. For example, a criminal convicted of a national crime in a national court would generally be granted clemency from the head of state or head of the national government such as a president, prime minister, or monarch. Likewise, a person convicted of a crime at the local level may typically only be granted executive clemency by the chief executive of the local government, such as a governor.
A pardon is generally considered to be the highest level of executive clemency. In most instances, a pardon is the complete forgiveness of a crime and any penalties or punishments that resulted from the conviction for the crime. In essence, a pardon removes a conviction from an individual’s record and legally it is as if the conviction never occurred. While a pardon may occur at any time, it is generally only issued after an individual has served a full prison sentence and has fulfilled certain requirements after the completion of the sentence.
Sentence commutations and sentence reductions are considered lower levels of executive clemency because, unlike a pardon, they generally do not involve the removal of the conviction from an individual’s record. A commutation or sentence reduction is the replacement of a greater penalty or punishment with a lesser one. For example, a person that has been sentenced to twenty years in prison may have the sentence commuted to a one-year prison sentence. In another example, someone who was sentenced to death may have the punishment reduced to life imprisonment.
Executive clemency may be granted for a variety of reasons. In many instances, the guilt of the convicted individual is in doubt and the chief executive may use the power of clemency to “right a wrong.” In other circumstances, the punishment provided to the individual may be deemed by the chief executive to be too harsh or excessive for the crime. Political, professional and personal motivations may also play a role in determining who is granted executive clemency.