Executive Clemency in the United States
- Margaret Colgate LoveMargaret Colgate LoveLaw Office of Margaret Love
Executive clemency has a rich history in the United States, both as an agent of justice and as a tool of politics. A presidential power to pardon was included in Article II of the Constitution, and all but one of the state constitutions provides for a clemency mechanism. States have established a variety of ways to manage and sometimes limit a governor’s exercise of the constitutional pardoning power, but the president’s power has remained unlimited by law. Until quite recently, clemency played a fully operational part in both federal and state justice systems, and the pardoning power was used regularly and generously to temper the harsh results of a criminal prosecution. Presidents also used their power to calm and unify the country after a period of strife, and to further policy goals when legislative solutions fell short.
But in modern times unruly clemency’s justice-enhancing role has been severely diminished, initially because reforms in the legal system made it less necessary, but later because of theoretical and practical objections to its regular use. A reluctance on the part of elected officials to take political risks, as well as clemency-related controversies, have further eroded clemency’s legitimacy. As a result, in most U.S. jurisdictions clemency now plays a limited role, and the public regards its exercise with suspicion. There are only about a dozen states in which clemency operates as an integral part of the justice system, in large part because its exercise is protected from political pressures by constitutional design. At the same time, the need for an effective clemency mechanism has never been greater, particularly in the federal system, because of lengthy mandatory prison sentences and the lifelong collateral civil consequences of conviction. It appears unlikely that an unregulated and unrestrained executive power will ever be restored to its former justice-enhancing role, so that those concerned about fairness and proportionality in criminal punishments must engage in the more demanding work of democratic reform.