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Clemency: Everything you need to know about Appeals for Clemency

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If you’re a felon looking for a job or trying to get reintegrated back into the world, sometimes all you need is a second chance.

That’s where clemency comes in.

Clemency is a legal process defined by grace.

This offer is extended when the judicial system gets it wrong with some people.

There are specific steps that a person has to take to have their case reconsidered.

In this article, we’ll discuss what Clemency is and the different types of Clemency.

You will also read examples of famous cases when convicts have received Clemency.

In the end, we’ll answer some common questions about the Clemency process.

Stay tuned for more information and statistics on this legal “fail-safe.” 


What is Clemency? 

stock image showing hand holding another to demonstrate clemency

Clemency is a law centered around leniency.

If someone breaks a federal or state law, they receive mercy.

There are different types of Clemency.

This process is especially important with death penalty cases.

Even if someone tried everything they could for an appeal on death row, Clemency is still an option.

Their life might get spared in the end if they receive Clemency. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, the process for a clemency petition may vary.

All 50 states have a Clemency procedure, even though they don’t use it often.

The inmate can get a shorter prison sentence or be completely forgiven of the crime. 

Who Can Grant Clemency?

The state constitution awards the governor power to give someone Clemency.

But, this process can change depending on the system. Sometimes the governor can only grant Clemency if the state Clemency Board agrees. 

Some states, like Connecticut and Alabama, allow Clemency via an independent board.

This board gets selected by the governor. 

The President of the United States can grant Clemency if someone gets convicted of a crime.

The President has full power to give Clemency to as many people as desired. 

Do You Need Clemency?

Clemency is necessary. It’s a system that checks for unfair outcomes within the criminal justice system.

Successful clemency petitions get accepted on a case-by-case basis. 

There are many reasons why a person can receive Clemency.

If someone is genuinely innocent, a state governor or the President can choose to pardon them.

They can also choose to commute (reduce) someone’s sentence.

A sentence reduction happens when the sentence is more severe than the crime. 

Types of Clemency

Two main types of Clemency get granted, pardons and commutations.

There is also a form of Clemency, known as the restoration of civil rights.

They are simple to understand, and they each need specific circumstances for approval.

[su_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/4sbsk1q1ljw” width=”1920″ height=”1080″]

1. Commutation

If someone gets declared guilty, and the government shortens their prison sentence, that is a commutation.

At times, the probation or parole term can also get reduced, as well as any fines.

Rarely, a person can get their entire sentence erased.

They will get parole or probation instead of custody.

An example of this would be a death sentence that gets substituted for life imprisonment. 

It’s important to remember that commutation doesn’t erase or reverse the conviction.

The individual will still get convicted.

The conviction also gets reported on their record.

There are some cases when a person’s commutation is conditional.

This means that they have to meet some requirements, or they will lose the commutation. 

2. Pardon

A pardon happens when the governor or the President completely forgives someone for committing a crime. 

Some laws give the government permission to issue a pardon and say that someone is innocent.

A pardon can get granted both before and after a conviction.

This depends on the particular laws within that jurisdiction. 

3. Restoration of Civil Rights 

This form of Clemency gives people the Civil Rights they lost when they got convicted.

Certain crimes will result in the automatic loss of certain rights.

This depends on the area that you live in.  

Here are some examples: 

  • The right to serve on a jury
  • The right to vote
  • The right to have a driver’s license
  • The right to hold public office
  • The right to become a United States citizen
  • The right to receive specific public benefits such as loans and housing
  • The right to have a firearm
  • The right to receive federal aid as a student

The rules for returning someone’s civil rights will be different depending on the state.

Sometimes, the courts can give rights back.

Sometimes, the person has to send in an application to the clemency board or the governor. 

In any case, this type of Clemency gets completed by submitting an application.

The application has to give good reasons on why they should get their rights back. 

Who is Eligible for Clemency?

Some requirements are necessary for both commutations and pardons.

Here are the eligibility requirements:

vector graphic showing man standing in front of a train for clemency post

1. Commutation

These are the rules to receive Commutation:

  • The individual has begun serving the imposed sentence.
  • The individual has tried all available court challenges to the conviction and the prison sentence.

Conditions may get imposed as a part of the grant for Clemency by the President. 

Other factors of consideration:

  • The severity of the offense for which the individual got convicted
  • Old age
  • Critical illness
  • The discrepancy in the severity of the sentence
  • Criminal record of the applicant
  • The length of time already served in prison
  • How the applicant was able to adjust to prison
  • Any meritorious service not rewarded by the government
  • Any other relevant factors

2. Pardons

A pardon gets granted based on exemplary behavior for a significant amount of time during the sentence that’s served.

The requirements for a pardon application are as follows:

  • Wait for at least five years after getting released or convicted (whichever is the latter)

In some cases, the Department may choose to waive the five-year waiting period.

Other factors of consideration:

  • Conduct post-conviction, as well as the individual’s character and reputation
  • The applicant’s capacity to lead a productive life for a decent amount of time after they got released. 
  • If the applicant has a job
  • If they are responsible with family
  • Community service participation
  • Charitable deeds
  • Military record, if applicable
  • Remorse or atonement
  • Seriousness and recency of offense
  • Recommendations from officials
  • Need for relief

Clemency Process 

Below is a general overview of the Clemency process at both the state and federal levels.

Executive Clemency

  1. Wait for five years after the time of your sentence completion.
  2. Contact the federal government for an application.
  3. Draft a letter explaining why you’re entitled to Clemency.
  4. Produce a clean criminal record. 
  5. Provide a document that explains why it is in the best interest of the public for you to receive Clemency.
  6. Provide three letters of recommendation outside of your immediate family.

State Clemency

This process is like federal Clemency.

The only difference is how long you have to wait before applying.

You will also petition a different governing body. 

There are more steps that you’ll have to complete.

You have to complete an eligibility form and get permission to apply for Clemency. 

Notable Clemency Cases/Use of Clemency 

The 2019 film “Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu, is an excellent movie that talks about the struggles within the criminal justice system for inmates on death row.

The movie stars Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, and Wendell Pierce.

The film talks about how hard it was for a prison ward to make a choice.

She had to choose to execute a man that she had become friends with. 

Individuals that former President Donald Trump pardoned:

1. Jon Donyae Ponder

Pardon date: August 25, 2020  

Sentence date: December 27, 2005

2. Alice Marie Johnson

Pardon date: August 28, 2020

Sentence date:  March 21, 1997

3. George Papadopoulos

Pardon date: December 22, 2020

Sentence date: September 7, 2018

Famous Clemency Cases:

1. Ohio Adult Parole Authority vs. Woodard (1998)

2. United States vs. Wilson (1833)

3. United States vs. Klein (1871)

Common Questions About Clemency

1. How Has the Coronavirus Affected Clemency Approval Ratings?

In 2020, thousands of inmates received pardons.

This happened to keep the virus from spreading in correctional facilities.

Over 500 people got commutations because they would be “high-risk” if they got COVID-19.

2. Do I Need An Attorney to Handle My Clemency Petition?

You do not need an attorney to represent you in the Clemency process. 

3. Do I Have to Attend the Clemency Hearing?

The applicant is not required to show up to the hearing in front of the Clemency Board.

But, if you think your testimony will help you get Clemency, you may want to attend. 

Wrapping Up

Remember that Clemency keeps order in the judicial system.

Pardons are to forgive someone for a crime they have committed, or in rare cases, to declare them innocent of any wrongdoing. 

Commutation of a sentence refers to reducing someone’s sentence for any variety of reasons.

This act does not erase the conviction from their record or declare them as innocent.

For more information on Clemency and any application requirements, please read here.

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