If you or a loved one are going to prison, you want to explore all options to get out early. Some of those, like appeals, are obvious. Others like parole or compassionate release rely on prisons. But another option exists outside of the courtroom and prison, too: you can apply for clemency.
What is clemency?
Clemency is the process in which the president, a governor or a board reduces someone’s prison sentence. The process includes other concepts you may have heard of. Examples include pardons and commutations. You ask the president (for federal crimes) or your state’s governor (for state crimes) to release you early.
All states and the federal government have a process. Usually, it involves filing paperwork with a group of people chosen by the president or governor who makes recommendations. Presidents and governors are not require to follow these recommendations, though.
Clemency is available to anyone charged with a crime, including people on death row. Even if they have lost all of their appeals, people in prison may still get clemency.
How can you apply for clemency?
To apply for clemency in federal cases, you can go to the Department of Justice’s website. Their “Clemency Forms & Instructions” page includes everything you should need. This page walks you through the process step by step.
Before you begin the process, though, there are two things you need to know. First, the president does not have clemency powers over state convictions. So, if you were convicted in a state court, you need to go to your state’s governor instead.
The easiest way to tell whether your conviction is under state or federal law is by looking up what prison you are in. If you cannot find yourself on this BOP website, you are probably serving a state sentence. You can also tell by the court your trial or plea happened in. If it was a United States District Court, you are probably serving a federal sentence.
Most states have similar websites for their processes, too.
What is the difference between clemency and a pardon?
Clemency and a pardon are separate but related concepts. A pardon is an example of clemency. If a president or governor pardons you, you will be released. But a president or governor can also commute your sentence. That means it will end sooner than it was supposed to. A commutation is also an example of clemency.
To understand the difference, think of clemency as a plant. Then think of a pardon as a cactus. A cactus and a plant aren’t the same, but they are related. A cactus is a kind of a plant. The relationship between clemency and a pardon is the same. A pardon is a kind of clemency, but it is not the same.
Clemency is a way to reduce to end your prison sentence without going to court or asking your prison for an early release. The process to apply for clemency is complicated, but the DOJ’s website can walk you through it. And, if you have questions about it, they have a Frequently Asked Questions page, too.