Difference Between Clemency and Pardon

Clemency vs Pardon

Identifying the difference between the terms Clemency and Pardon is a conundrum. Those of us well-versed with the field of Public Law, as well as the Criminal Justice System, can easily distinguish the two terms. However, for those of us not so acquainted or familiar with these areas, it is somewhat difficult to identify the distinction between Clemency and Pardon. Indeed, some of us even question if there is a difference at all. In general, the two terms, Clemency and Pardon, are interpreted to mean the act of forgiving a convicted person. While this is accurate, for the most part, there still exists a subtle difference between Clemency and Pardon that separates both terms. Perhaps the key to understanding this distinction is to think of Clemency as a much broader concept than Pardon.

What does Clemency mean?

While the dictionary refers to Clemency as an act of forgiving it also specifically interprets it to mean leniency. This term connotes that there is some form of exemption and/or liberty. It is technically defined as the power given to an executive authority to reduce or moderate the severity of a punishment imposed upon an offender. Other sources have defined the term as an act of mercy or forbearance towards a criminal. Generally, a Clemency entails reducing the penalties imposed on a convicted person without completely removing or dismissing his/her conviction from record. Thus, the person will still serve time in prison but the term of imprisonment might be reduced or the nature of the sentence might be modified. A simple example of this is when a person is sentenced to death for a crime and the executive authority changes the sentence to life imprisonment. In such an instance, the person is not released, but rather the severity of his/her sentence has been lessened. A Clemency is typically carried out by the head of government, usually the president. In the United States, a governor may grant Clemency for crimes affecting that particular state while the President may grant Clemency for federal crimes. The notion of viewing Clemency as a broader concept is based on the fact that it includes a Pardon, reduction of a prison sentence, commutation of a sentence or reprieve. A Clemency is also granted in cases where the offender is either aged, needs medical care, or where there is doubt concerning guilt.

Difference Between Clemency and Pardon

Changing capital punishment to lifetime imprisonment is clemency

What does Pardon mean?

A Pardon, as mentioned above, falls within the concept of a Clemency. Thus, it constitutes one form or type of Clemency. It is defined in law as the official act of forgiving someone of a crime committed. A Pardon has the effect of forgiving an offender of the crime committed and freeing him/her from the penalty imposed. It is typically granted when the relevant authority is satisfied that the person has served sufficient time in incarceration and has demonstrated good behavior and character during this time. The concept of Pardon originated from the early English system wherein the monarch had the prerogative to forgive or pardon all forms of crimes against the crown. As with Clemency, a Pardon is typically granted by the head of state. In the United States, the president has the power to grant Pardon for offenders of federal crimes while the governor has the power to grant Pardon for state crimes. Pardons may be unconditional or conditional. An unconditional Pardon can easily be understood as one that frees an offender, restores his/her civil rights and innocence in society and eradicates the conviction from public record. In addition, the person cannot be retried for that same crime in the future. Think of the term Pardon as an act that entitles a convicted person to a new beginning in society in which there is no record of the conviction, suggesting that the crime was never committed at all. Further, unlike other forms of Clemency, a Pardon grants full freedom and liberty to the offender in that he/she is not subject to any restrictions.

Clemency vs Pardon

Pardon given by President Ford

What is the difference between Clemency and Pardon?

• Clemency refers to an act of leniency wherein the executive authority either lessens the severity of a sentence or modifies it.

• A Pardon refers to an act of forgiveness wherein the offender is completely absolved of the crime and consequent penalties, and his/her civil rights are restored.

• Pardon is one type of Clemency. Clemency can include acts that may not necessarily free the person but instead might lower the prison sentence or grant some other form of exemption.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Clemency by Bob Jagendorf (CC BY 2.0)
  2. Pardon given by President Ford under Proclamation 4313 via Wikicommons (Public Domain)