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Legal jargon associated with former president Obama’s final humane acts toward federal prisoners is an interesting study. Let’s look at the lexicon and meanings of legal words in the context of possible prisoners’ benefits.

On January 17, 2017, then president Obama gave 273 federal inmates a second chance. Neil Eggleston, counsel to the former president, announced commutations and pardons, stating, “With today’s 209 grants of commutation, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals—the most grants of commutation issued by any President in this nation’s history.”


Where Does the Power of the President Come from to Reduce Inmates’ Prison Sentences?

The power is found in of the Constitution: “and he [the president] shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment” (emphasis added).

An offense against the United States means a conviction for breaking a federal law. States have their own versions of commutation, but the focus of this blog is on the federal system.


What Does Clemency Mean?

The Law Dictionary defines clemency as “the president’s power to pardon a person convicted of a criminal offense or to commute the related sentence.” When Chelsea Manning’s thirty-five-year sentence for convictions related to the Espionage Act was reduced to seven years by former president Obama, she was being granted clemency. Her criminal record, however, was not erased. (Manning is scheduled to be released from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on May 17, 2017.)

Find out more about applying for clemency by clicking here.


What Is a Commutation of a Prison Sentence?

According to NOLO, “Commutation is a form of clemency that reduces the punishment for a crime. It usually takes the form of a reduced (‘commuted’) prison term, but can also reduce court-ordered fines.” State governors use commutation to reduce the sentences of state prisoners.

NOLO goes on to say that “a commuted sentence replaces the original, court-ordered sentence. A[n] . . . example is ex-President [G. W.] Bush’s 2007 decision to commute Scooter Libby’s 30-month prison sentence.”


What Is a Pardon?

According to ABC News, a “pardon is an ‘executive forgiveness of crime’”; clemency and commutation are executive orders that reduce a prison sentence penalty.

There’s a fine distinction between commutation and pardon. Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law explains it this way: “A pardon wipes out the conviction while a commutation leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment.” A commutation lowers a prison sentence which results in a shorter prison term. Randy Barnett, Carmack Waterhouse professor of legal theory at Georgetown University, puts it another way: a “pardon is an ‘executive forgiveness of crime’; commutation [which comes under the umbrella term clemency] is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.’”


One Last Word

of the Constitution refers to the president’s power to grant reprieves. A reprieve is “the cancellation or postponement of a punishment” of someone, especially one condemned to death. Reprieve is another way of spelling relief.

Familiarity with the legal lexicon helps us understand what’s going on when a president grants any form of clemency. In a previous blog, I discussed the opposite side of inmates’ rights—when the Constitution takes away the rights of incarcerated felons, allowing them to be treated as slaves. In The Thirteenth Amendment Screws, I visit the constitutional amendment that carves out a legal loophole that enables the enslavement of men and women inmates in today’s prison systems in this country.

When I practiced law, I learned that the meaning of words was paramount to being an effective communicator. This is an imperative call for us all. Please post any questions you have about the terms discussed here in the comments section.

Image courtesy of wisegeek at



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