What is Executive Clemency?

R. Anacan
R. Anacan
Presidents have the power to grant clemency.
Presidents have the power to grant clemency.

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.

Executive clemency can include reducing someone's prison sentence.
Executive clemency can include reducing someone's prison sentence.

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.

Discussion Comments


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@kentuckycat - I agree with you about President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon after the Watergate trial. I believe that Nixon was involved to some degree. I don't think that the President is above the law.

I think many Americans did not agree with the executive clemency Nixon received. It was, no doubt, done for political reasons.


The idea of executive clemency is a difficult one to resolve, at least in my mind. There are many people in prison, whose guilt is questionable. How on earth would a government executive choose the ones who might deserve to either have their conviction wiped off the records or have their sentence reduced.

If a criminal is granted clemency because of a favor to a friend or relative of the executive, to me, that is completely wrong. There is already too much favoritism given in government.


@stl156 - I was actually watching a documentary on TV the other day talking about a high profile case in Virginia, I believe, about four men who were wrongly convicted of murder.

The case itself was very odd in that the men were all bullied into giving false testimonies and forced to name accomplices who seemed to be clearly innocent. The case included rape, so all of the men received those felony charges on their criminal records.

One of the men got a lesser sentence and got parole and was released. The other ones eventually had their sentences commuted by the governor. Even though they were all released from prison, the commutation didn't remove the charges from their records, so they still can't get jobs and have to go through the sex offender procedures.

In this case, they've been released, but still are seeking a pardon so that they can get their lives back on track and not have to deal with charges on their record that all signs point to never happening.


What would be the purpose of giving someone a pardon after they have finished the prison sentence? Of course, I guess it would be nice for the person receiving the pardon to know they were decided to be innocent, but does it really benefit them in any way?

Also, I was thinking, what types of clemency systems are in place in other countries? For example, in the UK, who grants clemency? Can it be done by the Queen or Prime Minister, or even by people lower down in government? I think it would be interesting to look at whether countries like China or North Korea ever release people from crimes.


So, how exactly does a person go about getting a pardon? There are thousands of people in prison, how does the president or governor decide who is going to get a pardon or commutation and who isn't?

Do the executives have people working for them who sift through cases and find ones that may be controversial, or can inmates file some sort of application for a pardon? How many of the cases the executive looks at actually end up getting a pardon? How many are granted a year, usually?


I think quite possibly the most famous pardon, at least in American history, is when President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. It was one of the main reasons Ford was never re-elected.

I think executive clemency is important for righting wrongs that may have happened, but in the case of Nixon, there is a lot of speculation that maybe it was done more for political reasons than ethical ones.


@nony - That assumes that the guilt of the individual is clearly established. As the article points out, there are situations where the individual’s guilt is in doubt.

In such a case, I can see a valid justification to issue clemency. Personally, I believe that these are the only cases where federal pardons should be issued, but that is certainly not required under the law. That’s just my opinion.


Executive clemency can be a very controversial political decision in my opinion. This is for several reasons.

One, the person that you pardon – or whose sentence you commute – may have been guilty of the most heinous crimes, one that is particularly vile in the eyes of the public.

As an executive official, you may win yourself no favor in the eyes of the public by commuting that person’s sentence. Second, a person who is pardoned may very well commit the same crime again.

If that crime results in bloodshed, your political opponents will lay that blood on your hands. Whether that’s fair or not is immaterial. This is politics, and that’s how the game is played.

I also don’t think that executives should issue a rash of pardons either; this too raises eyebrows. In my opinion, pardons or commutations should be done sparingly.

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    • Presidents have the power to grant clemency.
      By: sborisov
      Presidents have the power to grant clemency.
    • Executive clemency can include reducing someone's prison sentence.
      By: angelo.gi
      Executive clemency can include reducing someone's prison sentence.