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Leniency or mercy. A power given to a public official, such as a governor or the president, to in some way lower or moderate the harshness of punishment imposed upon a prisoner.

Clemency is considered to be an act of grace. It is based on the policy of fairness, justice, and forgiveness. It is not a right but rather a privilege, and one who is granted clemency does not have the crime forgotten, as in Amnesty, but is forgiven and treated more leniently for the criminal acts. Clemency is similar to pardon inasmuch as it is an act of grace exempting someone from punishment. Commutation of an offender's sentence, however, is the lessening of the punishment based on the offender's own good conduct subsequent to his conviction.

Although clemency is a privilege and not a right, questions have arisen as to whether a prisoner sentenced to death is entitled to certain constitutional rights during a clemency proceeding. States that impose the death penalty require a clemency review before a prisoner is executed. For example, Ohio requires the state Parole authority to conduct a clemency review 45 days before the date of execution and file its report with the governor. As part of the review the prisoner may request an interview with a parole board member but the prisoner does not have the right to have an attorney present.

An Ohio death row inmate objected to the interview on two grounds, contending it violated his Fifth Amendment right against Self-Incrimination and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. He insisted that he should not have to make a choice between seeking clemency and remaining silent about the crime he had been convicted of, and of other crimes he may have committed. A federal appeals court agreed with the inmate that the process violated his Fifth Amendment right, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision in Ohio Adult Parole Authority v. Woodard, 523 U.S. 272, 118 S.Ct. 1244, 140 L.Ed.2d 387 (1998).

The Supreme Court found that the inmate did not have any due process rights because clemency could only be given at the discretion of the governor. Moreover, the Executive Branch, not the judicial branch, conducted the process. In addition, the Court cited prior rulings where it had stated that pardon and commutation proceedings have not traditionally been the business of courts and are rarely, if ever, appropriate subjects for Judicial Review. As to the Fifth Amendment argument, the Court ruled that the inmate had to exercise the same choice he had made at trial: to testify or to remain silent. In the Ohio clemency process, the inmate has a choice of providing information—at the risk of damaging his case for clemency or for post-conviction relief—or of remaining silent.

Acts of clemency are usually issued in isolated cases. In 2002, however, outgoing governor George Ryan announced that he had concerns about the fairness of Illinois judicial proceedings against 160 death row inmates, which compelled him to begin clemency review proceedings into their crimes. During the fall of 2002 a special review board conducted public hearings and private reviews concerning each inmate's case. Relatives of victims gave emotional testimony, while attorneys for the inmates pointed out troublesome charges, including the use of torture on suspects to make them confess. In January 2003, Governor Ryan took the unprecedented step of granting clemency to all the death row inmates. He pardoned four inmates who he believed were not guilty; the remainder of the inmates were given life sentences. Ryan concluded that the legal process surrounding Capital Punishment had become so corrupted that he had no choice but to grant clemency.

Further readings

Burnett, Cathleen. 2002. Justice Denied: Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Davey, Monica, and Steve Mills. 2003. "Ryan Issues Blanket Clemency." Chicago Tribune (January 11).

Gagne, Patricia. 1998. Battered Women's Justice: The Movement for Clemency and the Politics of Self-Defense. New York: Twayne.


Due Process of Law; Prisoners' Rights.


noun absolution, amnesty, benefaction, beneficence, benevolence, benignity, charity, clementia, clementness, commutation, compassion, consideration, disposition to mercy, disposition to pardon, excuse, exemption, extenuation, forbearance, forgiveness, generosity, generousness, gentleness, good will, grace, humaneness, humanity, indemnity, indulgence, kindness, leniency, lenity, liberality, magnanimity, mansuetuda, mercifulness, mercy, obligingness, pardon, pardoning, purgation, release, reprieve, respite, tolerance, toleration, willingness to forgive
Associated concepts: clemency by the Governor, clemency by the President of the United States, Executive clemency
See also: benevolence, charity, condonation, consideration, grace, humanity, indulgence, lenience, pardon

CLEMENCY. The disposition to treat with leniency. See Mercy; Pardon.

References in periodicals archive ?
Cathleen Burnett has examined 50 clemency petitions in Missouri to gain a better understanding of the factors surrounding clemency procedures in that state in her book, Justice Denied: Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases, but does not address the variation in the distribution of the clemencies granted nationally or the negligible number of commutations granted in Missouri compared with other states (Ryan, 2002).
For example, in examining the clemency data for the past 10 years in Ohio during the Voinovich and Taft administrations, 156 clemencies were granted out of the 5,322 applications received, or less than 3 percent.
Not much is known about the manner in which clemencies are granted and if there are regional differences in their distribution.
The most important factor contributing to the number of clemencies that are granted in capital cases is public opinion.
While attempting to explain the reasons for the current regional variation in the number of clemencies granted for capital crimes, it is important to note that: For much of this century, clemency was an important feature of death row administration--in some states, upwards of 30 percent to 40 percent of offenders saw their sentences commuted from death to life in prison.