Within the criminal justice system, there is a judicial act that is referred to as “clemency.” There are three primary forms of clemency: 1) a reprieve, 2) a commutation of sentence, or 3) a pardon. Continue reading to learn what clemency means for a convict, and how each type of clemency works.

Clemency is another term for mercy, leniency, or forgiveness. In the criminal justice system, it applies to convicted individuals who are serving jail or prison time. It is an act that can only be conducted by an executive member of government; under state law it would be the governor, and under federal law it would be the President of the United States.

Clemency extends leniency to convicted inmate by offering opportunities for reduced imprisonment. As mentioned in the introduction, there are three forms of judicial leniency, which include reprieves, commutations of sentences, and pardons.


A reprieve is offered to certain qualifying inmates to suspend the execution of their sentence in order to give them more time to have their sentence reduced. You see this form of clemency most often in capital cases, where an inmate is facing the death penalty. By granting a reprieve, the inmate has more time to appeal the capital punishment sentence.

Commutation of Sentence

A commutation of sentence is a form of clemency that reduces a defendant’s sentence to a lesser penalty or jail term. Most often, this is applied toward defendant’s whose sentence is imprisonment. Although this form of clemency reduces or suspends a defendant’s jail time, it does not annul the actual conviction.


It is common to hear of pardons in the movies and on television, but in real life, pardons are incredibly rare and much more formal. In a basic sense, a pardon forgives a convicted individual of their crimes and penalties. Pardons can only be granted by a head of state or top government official. They are generally only awarded when a convicted individual has paid their “debt to society”, or is somehow worthy of being forgiven for the crime. Pardons do not void the conviction; they simply let the individual off the hook after they have done their time and paid the price of committing the crime.

Qualifications for Clemency

Clemency is often reserved for humanitarian purposes. For example, if an inmate is incredibly old or in need of extensive medical care, they may be granted clemency for their crimes. In other examples, clemency may be granted to those whose sentences were excessive, or whose guilt was surrounded by doubt. Of course, there are times when clemency is granted as a favor to an executive’s political friends or associates.

Clemency Petitions

Inmates must request clemency via application or petition. Before these petitions are reviewed by a head of government, most states require the applications to be filed through a reviewing agency, such as the State Board of Pardon and Parole. Talk to your trusted criminal defense lawyer for help understanding your rights to sentence leniency.