Clemency – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you interested in learning about the ways in which people convicted of crimes may be pardoned or otherwise awarded compassion?

This concept is called clemency, and this post will explore the meaning and origins of this legal term.


Clemency, as a noun in the English language, simply means a compassionate, merciful approach to justice or punishment.

As a legal term, clemency refers to a practice in which those political figures who have the authority to do so may alter the nature of a convicted criminal’s prison sentence, by reducing its severity.

Clemency can take multiple forms, including a pardon (which restores the affected person's freedom), but it does not mean that the person is acquitted or has been found not guilty.

Example Usage

The legal term clemency is complex, and these example sentences may offer a better idea of the ways in which the term is used in practice:

  • Inmates typically have to wait five years, showing exemplary behavior in prison the entire time, before they are able to petition the Governor for clemency.
  • The US President can pardon Federally convicted inmates, but cannot grant clemency to those convicted of state criminal offenses.
  • If new evidence casting doubt on your cousin's guilt has really come to light, he should petition for clemency.


The United States Constitution establishes the President's right to grant clemency to those convicted of Federal criminal offenses in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1. This clause reads that "The President shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment". This means that the power of clemency has existed since 1787.

Within individual states, Governors or clemency boards appointed by the Governor have a similar power pertaining to state criminal offenses, with regulations differing from state to state.

Clemency means compassion, leniency, or forgiveness, which take the form of the alteration of a prisoner's sentence. It does not mean that the prisoner is now no longer considered guilty, but rather that forgiveness is offered.

Clemency may be granted for a number of reasons. They include doubts that the original sentence was fair, doubts about the guilt of the prisoner, and advanced age or illness. To be eligible to be considered for clemency, an inmate must usually take responsibility for their crime and have shown good behavior in prison.

Phrases Similar to Clemency

Clemency can take multiple forms:

  • A pardon entails forgiveness for the crime committed. It may be granted while the prisoner is still serving the sentence, or after the sentence has been served.
  • A commutation involves reducing the severity of the sentence, such from a death sentence to a life sentence.
  • Amnesty forgives the offense and clears the criminal record. It is typically extended to a group of people sentenced to politically-motivated sentences.
  • A reprieve is a short-term measure allowing a convicted criminal to fight their case, and may include a stay of execution in death penalty cases.

What Is the Correct Word?

The correct word is clemency, meaning a compassionate measure to reduce the punishment a criminal has received.

Ways People May Say Clemency Incorrectly

It is common for people to see clemency and a pardon as being synonymous legal concepts, but also incorrect. While a pardon completely forgives someone for a crime they committed, clemency can also take other forms, such as commutation.

It would also be incorrect to refer to cases in which a previous sentence was overturned following new evidence as clemency. This situation would commonly be referred to as "winning an appeal".

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Clemency

You can use the legal term clemency to refer to the decision to alter a convicted criminal's sentence for compassionate reasons, or to the process of seeking clemency.

Prisoners or their lawyers seek clemency or petition for clemency. Authority figures that include the President, state Governors, and state clemency boards, grant clemency.

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