Clemency in a Time of Crisis
38 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2012
Date Written: June 7, 2012
At the state level, the power to pardon or commute a criminal sentence — that is, to grant clemency — is vested in either the Governor, an executive clemency board, or some combination thereof. Until very recently, clemency grants were a consistent feature of our criminal justice system. In the last four decades, though, state clemency grants have declined significantly; in some states, clemency seems to have disappeared altogether. In this Article, I contend that executive clemency should be revived at the state level in response to ongoing systemic criminal justice failings. Part I of this Article describes clemency at the state level today. Despite judicial and scholarly support for the role of clemency in our criminal justice system, state clemency practice fails to live up to its theoretical justifications. Part II of this Article makes the case for a policy of vigorous clemency on both theoretical and practical grounds. Not only was clemency designed, at least in part, to serve an error-correcting function, but also, today, there are several reasons why state executive actors may be able to use their clemency power robustly without suffering politically. In Part III, I address questions of implementation. If state executive actors are to pursue commutations of sentences or pardons, which inmates should be the subject of such pursuits? How can those executive actors best be insulated from political pressure? In sum, this Article argues that revitalizing state clemency is a valuable and viable component of broader criminal justice reform.
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