Judge's gavel

Understanding Clemency

Clemency, also called a pardon or commutation, is a form of relief that a person convicted of a crime can receive from the Governor of the state of Washington or the President of the United States. The appropriate person to grant clemency or a pardon will depend on whether the conviction was for a federal or state offense. A Seattle criminal defense attorney can explain your options and help you in understanding clemency.

Federal Clemency

The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) says that the President has a constitutional right to reduce (commute) the sentence of a person convicted of a federal crime. Let’s say that someone gets convicted of a federal crime and receives a sentence of 10 years in federal prison. The President can reduce that sentence to a shorter duration. 

If someone serves the sentence and wants to get a pardon, he has to wait at least five years after getting released from confinement to file an application for a pardon. For example, in 1977, President Carter pardoned some people who evaded the military draft during the Vietnam War. 

The USDOJ follows these “Standards for Consideration of Clemency Petitioners”:

  • The petitioner lives a productive and responsible life for at least five years after serving the sentence. The FBI will run an investigation of the applicant’s finances, employment, reputation in the community, military record, charitable and community service activities, and other factors relating to conduct and character.
  • How severe and recent the crime was.
  • Whether the applicant took responsibility for his actions, showed remorse, and made restitution to the victims of the crime.
  • The recommendations of relevant stakeholders.
  • The applicant’s need for the pardon, such as to pursue a career for which the conviction would be an impediment.

A commutation does not forgive the underlying conviction, but it can reduce the sentence to as little as time served. The standards include the convicted person having a significant illness, being elderly, cooperating with the investigation or prosecution, and an unfairly severe or disproportionate sentence.

Clemency in Seattle, Washington

The Governor of Washington State has the authority under the Washington Constitution to grant clemency, which can include any of the following:

  • Grant a pardon
  • Commute (reduce) a sentence
  • Grant a reprieve
  • Commute a death sentence to a sentence of life in prison 
  • Restore a convicted felon’s rights to own firearms and hold public office

The Governor cannot grant clemency for federal offenses or convictions under the laws of any state other than Washington. The state Clemency and Pardons Board (Board) processes petitions for clemency with the assistance of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

The Board meets four times a year in public sessions that include hearings and deliberating publicly. After these hearings and deliberations, the Board makes recommendations to the Governor. The Board looks for “extraordinary” factors that set the applicant apart from others seeking this relief. The Board will evaluate:

  • The severity of the crime. 
  • How the crime impacted victims.
  • The applicant’s background and criminal record.
  • How much time passed between the offense and the application for clemency.
  • Whether the applicant showed remorse, took responsibility, and atoned for the crime.
  • Personal growth and improvement of the applicant after getting convicted of the offense.
  • The recommendations of the prosecuting attorney or sentencing judge or both.
  • How the applicant currently benefits or poses a risk to the community.

The Governor can accept or reject the recommendation of the Board. Clemency is a rare remedy at the state or federal level. A Seattle criminal defense attorney can help you explore whether you might be eligible to pursue an application for state or federal clemency. Contact Jennifer today.

DISCLAIMER: This post is intended to share my perspective, insights, and some general information on various aspects of criminal law cases. It is not legal advice and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. You should consult an attorney to obtain legal advice for your individual situation and case.