Briefing on State Pardon and Commutation Processes

On April 30, the National Governors Association hosted its monthly briefing for Governors’ legal counsel which discussed legal considerations related to gubernatorial clemency authorities.

Every state constitution authorizes the Governor or a Board of Pardons to grant clemency—an umbrella term that refers to several mechanisms that allow for the remittance of consequences of a committed crime. Although terminology, procedure, structure, and the use of this power varies greatly by state, clemency authorities generally refer to the following executive powers:

  • Pardon. A pardon is an official nullification of legal consequences for a crime. The granting of a pardon by the Governor or formal Pardons Board may restore certain civil rights, such as the right to vote, the right to bear arms, or the ability to run for office or serve in the military. It may also remove some legal barriers to employment and licensing.
  • Commutation. Commutation shortens an individual’s sentence. If a commutation shortens an individual’s sentence to time served, it results in that individual’s release. Upon release, an individual whose sentence is commuted may remain on community supervision or may be released without ongoing supervision.
  • Reprieve. A reprieve suspends an individual’s sentence or temporarily delays the imposition or resumption of a sentence, including for an individual with a capital sentence.

Governors may possess exclusive authority to grant clemency or may share this power with a Board. Some states follow internal standards or criteria for granting clemency, often taking into account the full history of the applicant, the reasoning behind the request, and other personal factors. Because the granting of clemency is the prerogative of the Governor and/or Board, Governors may analyze the individual circumstances of an application and use their respective discretion when making decisions.

The number of pardons and commutations granted each year varies greatly by state and across administrations, and may also vary greatly year-to-year. Some Governors, as well as the President, have used their clemency powers to issue mass pardons to individuals with certain convictions, often related to marijuana possession. Mechanisms for issuing such mass pardons have varied, with some Governors issuing executive orders granting pardons and others establishing initiatives that streamline application processes. Some Governors have also issued mass commutations for certain incarcerated populations.

During the briefing, state speakers provided a general overview of their respective pardon and commutation processes. States also discussed the involvement of the Governor’s office during these processes, application and hearing procedures, eligibility requirements, notice provisions, and other legal effects.

NGA holds monthly briefings for Governors’ legal counsel. Please reach out to Lauren Dedon ( for additional information.