Clemency vs. Pardon: Which Is Better?
The word “clemency” might make you think of different things: A last-minute postponement of an execution. A governor forgiving a notorious crime. Or even Oklahoma’s own State Question 780, which reclassified certain crimes and ultimately commuted the sentences of hundreds of inmates. So what is clemency, really? Is it the same thing as a pardon?
The truth is that all of the above are examples of clemency, but they’re not all examples of pardons. Don’t worry – the discussion of clemency vs. pardon doesn’t have to be confusing. We’ll break it all down here.
What Is Clemency?
Clemency is a broad term that simply means the penalties of your crime have been reduced or put on hold. It includes:
- Reprieve: A temporary pause on your sentence. Reprieves are usually granted in death-row cases to postpone execution in special circumstances, like if the convicted person is pregnant or mentally disabled. While reprieves are not a commutation, they might lead to one.
- Commutation: A reduction of your sentence, which can include your prison time, fines and restitution you owe, or both. Commutation is often granted for non-violent crimes, such as drug-related convictions. It’s also sometimes used to change a sentence so that the person has a possibility of parole.
- Pardon: A type of clemency, but not all clemency rulings are pardons.
What Is a Pardon?
A pardon is a type of clemency that relieves you from the legal consequences of your crime. Unlike a reprieve or commutation, which delays or reduces your sentence, a pardon erases your conviction in the eyes of the state (although it remains on your record – more on that later).
Pardon vs. Clemency: Main Differences
There are distinct differences between the three types of clemencies that are important to know if your goal is to reduce, delay, or erase your sentence.
Difference #1: Requirements
Whether you apply for a reprieve, commutation, or pardon depends on the facts of your case. To be eligible for a reprieve, you must:
- Currently be in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), not on parole or probation
- Prove special circumstances in your case, like newly discovered evidence, medical reasons, or pending appeals
For a commutation, you must:
- Be in the custody of the Oklahoma DOC as described above
- Prove your sentence was excessive at the time of sentencing, would be considered excessive now, or new information has come to light
For a pardon, you must:
- Have been convicted of a crime but not currently be in the custody of the Oklahoma DOC
- Have no pending charges against you
- Have completed all sentencing, including probation, successfully
Difference #2: Your Rights
One of the biggest differences between a clemency (reprieve and commutation) and pardon is the restoration of your rights after a felony conviction. A reprieve doesn’t get you out of prison, and it has a time limit of 60 days. Since you’ll still eventually go to prison (or stay there) a reprieve doesn’t restore any of your rights. A commutation also doesn’t restore your rights – it just gets you out of prison earlier.
A pardon, on the other hand, can restore important rights like gun ownership and the ability to run for office. This is one of the biggest benefits of getting a pardon.
Difference #3: Expungement Eligibility
Whether you’re granted clemency as a pardon or commutation, it doesn’t overturn your conviction, and the crime will stay on your record. But the type of clemency you receive does affect your ability to get an expungement. (In the case of a reprieve, you don’t permanently get out of prison, so this section doesn’t apply.)
An expungement means that your criminal records are sealed to the public. While they’re still available to law enforcement, people like potential employers and landlords won’t be able to find them.
If you’re pardoned, you can apply for expungement right away. Thanks to a 2019 amendment to Oklahoma law, you can now seek expungement regardless of the crime you were pardoned for, including violent crimes, and there is no waiting period.
If your sentence was commuted, the regular rules for expungement eligibility apply to you. The requirements vary based on the crime you were convicted for. If your crime was a violent felony, you won’t be able to expunge it, even if your sentence was commuted. But misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies can typically be expunged after a waiting period, as long as you have no other pending charges, paid your fines, and completed any probation or treatment programs.
Difference #4: Application Process
When it comes to clemency, a pardon and a commutation are two sides of the same coin. The processes for how to get a pardon or commutation are actually more similar than they are different:
- You submit an application, including all required documentation.
- The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board reviews your application and determines if you’ll get a hearing.
- You attend your hearing to make your case.
- The Board decides whether to recommend your case for the governor’s approval.
- The governor makes the final decision on whether clemency will be granted.
The major difference here is between the application process for a reprieve and other forms of clemency. A reprieve does not have to go through the Pardon and Parole Board. The governor can grant a reprieve that doesn’t exceed 60 days whenever they see fit. They can even grant multiple reprieves, as Governor Kevin Stitt has done for death-row inmate Richard Glossip, whose case continues today.
Clemency vs. Pardon: Which Is Better?
Because a pardon is a type of clemency, it’s easy to mix these words up. The real debate isn’t between clemency vs. a pardon, but between different types of clemency: pardon, commutation, or reprieve – and the one that’s right for you depends on the specifics of your case.
- Reprieves are typically granted to delay execution for death-row inmates.
- Commutation could be right for you if you’re still in prison and facing a long sentence.
- Pardons are given to those who have served their time.
The Bottom Line
While a reprieve is typically an emergency order, a pardon or commutation could be an option for you to reduce the consequences of your crime. An experienced lawyer can help you determine if you’re eligible, fill out your application, and make your case at your hearing. The Tulsa Expungement Guy can also help you expunge your record – even if you don’t receive a pardon or commutation – as long as you meet the requirements. Contact us today to start your case.