What is clemency?

Clemency is a type of non-judicial remedy designed to reduce punishment and prevent miscarriages of justice. It’s traditionally viewed as a last resort, for prisoners who have already exhausted the appeal process.

Pardons are the most well-known form of clemency, but clemency also includes other extra-judicial relief, such as:

In most cases, clemency symbolizes forgiveness or rehabilitation, but doesn’t eliminate the conviction. Some types of clemency restore civil rights lost because of the conviction, but others don’t.

The power to grant clemency has traditionally rested with the executive branch. Only the President may grant clemency for federal crimes, while state clemency usually comes from the governor. The state’s constitution usually specifies who can grant clemency and any limitations on the power. Unless the constitution specifically authorizes them, any laws that attempt to limit the power to grant clemency most likely violate separation of powers and are unconstitutional.

There is no “right” to clemency, which is considered to be an act of grace. In most cases, the decision to grant clemency is committed to the executive’s sole discretion and can’t be overturned by any court, official, or agency. The executive isn’t required to explain why clemency was granted or denied, so there’s often no way to know what factored into the decision.

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