Executive Clemency Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Executive Clemency, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Executive Clemency?

n. the power of a President in federal criminal cases, and the Governor in state convictions, to pardon a person convicted of a crime, commute the sentence (shorten it, often to time already served) or reduce it from death to another lesser sentence. There are many reasons for exercising this power, including real doubts about the guilt of the party, apparent excessive sentence, humanitarian reasons such as illness of an aged inmate, to clear the record of someone who has demonstrated rehabilitation or public service, or because the party is a political or personal friend of the Governor.

History and Meaning of Executive Clemency

The concept of executive clemency dates back to ancient times, where it was used by monarchs to extend mercy to convicted criminals. In the United States, the power of executive clemency is vested in the President at the federal level and the Governor at the state level. The use of executive clemency is discretionary, meaning that they have the choice to grant or deny clemency requests made to them. The purpose of clemency is to grant relief to those who may have been unfairly sentenced, to correct an unjust result, or to show mercy for a rehabilitated offender.

Examples of Executive Clemency

  1. In 2021, President Biden granted clemency to over 100 federal inmates, including reducing sentences or granting full pardons.
  2. In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom granted executive clemency to several individuals, including reducing sentences or granting clemency for those who committed crimes as a minor.
  3. In 2001, President George W. Bush granted executive clemency to his former advisor, Scooter Libby, who had been convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection to the leaking of a CIA agent’s identity.

Legal terms Similar to Executive Clemency

  1. Pardon: A pardon is an executive action that forgives a person for their past criminal convictions and clears their record.
  2. Commutation: Commutation is a way of reducing a criminal sentence to a lesser one, for example, changing a death sentence to life imprisonment.
  3. Reprieve: A reprieve is a temporary stay of a sentence or execution, usually granted to allow more time for lawyers to prepare their case.