Governor Jerry Brown left office on Monday after weeks of discussion regarding the extension of clemency to the 740 condemned prisoners in California. Among all the conversation, there appeared to be a lot of confusion about the use of some of the legal terminology and what in fact clemency (and associated terms) mean.  With a new governor, Gavin Newsom, at the helm, these terms are still important to get right. Therefore, to dispel any clemency confusion, here are a few brief explanations of the terms you might have heard:


An act of clemency is an act of mercy granted by a governor, for state crimes, or the president, for federal crimes. Clemency is usually granted for humanitarian reasons, e.g., if there are doubts about the prisoner’s guilt, or the sentence was unduly harsh in light of the circumstances of the crime. The clemency process is either initiated by the governor/president or petitioned by a prisoner. At a state level, the clemency process varies. However, overall, in the case of death row prisoners, the process is the last review of the appropriateness of a prisoner’s death sentence before he or she is executed. If clemency is granted it can take effect as either: a pardon, a reprieve, or a commutation. If a pardon is given, the prisoner’s criminal conviction is dropped and his/her sentence is terminated. A reprieve acts to delay a sentence so a prisoner can find a way to have his or her sentence reduced. And a commutation reduces either the term or the gravity of a prisoner’s sentence and its accompanying punishment.


Commutation of a sentence occurs when the sentence is reduced to a lesser penalty or jail term. So, for example, in cases of condemned prisoners, the death penalty would most likely be commuted to life in prison. It is imperative to remember that this form clemency, like a reprieve, does not mean that criminal charges are forfeited – only in the case where a prisoner is granted a pardon will all charges be dropped and he or she allowed to rejoin society.


Governors’ clemency powers also enable them to impose what is known as a moratorium. A moratorium is a temporary suspension of executions in the state.

Elena Michael is a graduate law student at the City, University of London, who is planning to practice as a human rights lawyer.

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