Clemency procedures vary from state to state. In 15 states, the governor has full and sole authority to grant clemency: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico (although it has abolished the death penalty, two inmates remain on death row), North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. In seven states—Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas—the governor must have the recommendation of clemency from a board or advisory group. In Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah, a board or advisory group has the sole discretion to grant clemency.

Capital Punishment Clemency

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, hundreds of death row inmates have been granted clemency for humanitarian reasons. Humanitarian reasons include doubts about the defendant’s guilt and conclusions by the governor regarding the death penalty process. Since 1976, there have been five broad grants of clemency to death row inmates.

The list of governors who issued broad grants of clemency includes former governors Pat Quinn of Illinois in 2011 (all inmates), Jon Corzine of New Jersey in 2007 (all inmates), George Ryan of Illinois in 2003 (all inmates), Richard Celeste of Ohio in 1991 (8 inmates), and Toney Anaya of New Mexico in 1986 (all inmates).

Extreme Sentencing and Clemency

Clemency Project 2014—a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within these organizations—wholeheartedly supports Deputy Attorney General James Cole’s announcement and the Justice Department’s plans to restore the integrity of the clemency process.

Clemency Project launched after Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentence if they had been sentenced today. Clemency Project members collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general.

While Clemency Project focuses on those cases that clearly fit the broad criteria described by Cole, the ACLU notes that there are many other federal prisoners whose sentences are grossly disproportionate to the crimes for which they were convicted.

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