Clemency is an official excusal for a past crime. The President grants clemency for federal crimes and state governors grant clemency for state crimes. 

Clemency can be granted in multiple ways that have different effects. 

There are three types of clemency:

Each of these types of clemency forgives a person for a past crime. The type of clemency granted depends on the circumstances. 

Reprieve

Reprieve suspends the execution of death penalty sentences. Cases in which it is possible to be sentenced to death are called capital cases. 

In Ohio, capital cases include homicide under certain conditions. A person may face the death penalty if a homicide occurred while they were committing, attempting, or fleeing after committing specified crimes.

This includes:

Reprieve is a temporary measure to allow time to further evaluate a criminal conviction. Reprieve can be granted when new evidence is found or when there’s concern about an error in the criminal case. 

It can also be used when there is a pending appeal based on a last-minute change in circumstances. If you’ve ever seen a movie where the execution was paused at the last minute while the court decided an urgent issue, you’ve seen reprieve illustrated. 

Commutation of a Sentence

A second type of clemency, called commutation, reduces a penalty or shortens a sentence. Commutations usually shorten long or even life sentences doled out under harsh mandatory sentencing laws for drug crimes that have since been reformed. 

The U.S. Department of Justice publishes instructions for clemency requests. 

Generally, to receive clemency from the President, a person must have:

  • Been convicted of a federal crime 
  • Completed all court challenges
  • Begun serving their sentence

If fines or restitution were ordered as a part of a sentence, clemency can forgive outstanding balances owed through a process called remission. 

Clemency does not require the person seeking it to admit to any guilt, but it also does not serve as a full forgiveness for a crime. 

Pardon

After a person has fulfilled their debt to society by serving their sentence, they can be granted a pardon. 

A pardon does not truly erase the criminal conviction, but it can free a person from consequences related to their crime, such as:

  • Voting restrictions
  • Inability to hold public office
  • Prohibition on firearm ownership

Not only is a pardon usually reserved for people who have served their sentence, it also requires an admission of guilt. 

For many criminal defendants, it can be hard to admit guilt, even if it’s necessary to receive a pardon. So many criminal defendants maintain their innocence of the crime of which they are convicted throughout the entire appeals process. Since appeals must be exhausted before a sentence is complete and a pardon request is submitted, pardon-seekers have for years clung to their innocence. Nevertheless, to receive a pardon, they must admit guilt even if innocent.

A pardon can also open up eligibility for employment, bonding, or professional licensure. Presently, the only way a person convicted of a federal felony can regain the right to own a firearm is through a presidential pardon. 

Does a Grant of Clemency or A Pardon Stop Deportation?

For immigrants present in the U.S., certain criminal convictions can terminate their right to be present in the U.S. and trigger deportation. A grant of clemency does not impact immigration status and cannot stop a deportation. However, under some circumstances, a pardon will lift the threat of removal or deportation from the U.S. 

When is Clemency Granted?

Even for people meeting the requirements to request a reprieve, commutation of a sentence, or a pardon, clemency is not automatic. An exercise of clemency is within the discretion of the president or governor holding office. Typically, a president or governor grants clemency at the end of their term. 

Ordinarily, clemency is granted for humanitarian reasons. Unlike the punitive nature of sentencing, clemency is used to free a person from unnecessary pain. Elderly people or the seriously ill are often granted clemency. In addition, clemency is common when a sentence seems excessive or the circumstances of the conviction were apparently unfair. 

How Can I Get Clemency for Myself or a Loved One?

Applications for clemency are available through government offices. But applications that are incomplete or that have mistakes can be returned or denied without review. 

Applicants can attach letters of recommendation to their requests for clemency. A pardon-seeker, specifically, must complete an oath before a notary public and attach three notarized affidavits attesting to their personal character. If you think you or a loved one could be eligible for clemency, contact a reputable criminal defense attorney to learn more about your options.