It has long been recognized that our criminal justice system can be biased and unfair, leading to unduly harsh or wrongful sentences. One way to address the issue is through clemency.
What is clemency?
Clemency is an important power held by the U.S. president and state governors. It involves erasing or adjusting the sentence of someone serving time after being convicted of a crime.
The two primary ways to grant clemency are through a pardon or through the commutation of the prisoner’s sentence.
A pardon relieves the convicted individual of any further punitive measures or consequences resulting from their conviction. Generally, if a prisoner is pardoned, they are set free.
Commutation is important, but less powerful than pardons. A commutation reduces the prisoner’s sentence. This can be a full reduction or a partial reduction.
The U.S. president has the constitutional authority to pardon those serving time following a federal conviction. In Oregon, the governor has executive authority to issue pardons and commutations.
States also have a means for erasing a person’s criminal record after they have served their sentence. They do this through record sealing and expungement.
Examples of clemency
The use of clemency powers is alive and well in Oregon and with our current presidential administration.
For example, in December 2022, Oregon’s governor issued a commutation for all prisoners in Oregon’s death row, citing the immorality of the death penalty.
Clemency is not reserved for those on death row. In October 2022, President Biden granted pardons to thousands of prisoners serving time for federal possession of marijuana. Governors in some other states followed suit.
These are only some recent examples of the use of clemency powers in the United States.
Clemency fights injustice
An act of clemency is a recognition of the injustice that exists in our current criminal justice system.
There is a racial and immigrant bias in drug arrests, and the penalties for marijuana convictions are often outdated per current laws. The death penalty can be racist and arbitrary, particularly harming those of color.
Some people serve unduly harsh sentences for minor crimes, while others are wrongfully convicted. Clemency, along with record sealing and expungement serves as a means for providing justice in a system that can sometimes be unfair.