A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the penalty associated with it. It is granted by a head of state, such as a monarch or president, or by a competent church authority. Commutation is an associated term, meaning the lessening of the penalty of the crime without forgiving the crime itself. A reprieve is the temporary postponement of punishment. Clemency is a general term encompassing all of these. Today, pardons are granted in many countries when individuals have demonstrated that they have fulfilled their debt to society, or are otherwise deserving (in the opinion of the pardoning official) of a pardon. Pardons are sometimes offered to persons who claim they have been wrongfully convicted. Some believe accepting such a pardon implicitly constitutes an admission of guilt, so in some cases the offer is refused (cases of wrongful conviction are nowadays more often dealt with by appeal than by pardon).
These terms differ subtly from country-to-country, but generally:
- Amnesty: 'Forgetting' the crime, e.g. if a car thief witnesses a murder, he will often be granted amnesty for his crime in order to allow him to testify against the murderer, or after a civil war a mass amnesty may be granted to absolve all participants of guilt and 'move on'. Weapon amnesties are often granted so that people can hand in weapons to the police without any legal questions being asked as to where they obtained them/why they had them/etc.
- Commutation: Substituting the penalty for a crime with the penalty for another, whilst still remaining guilty of the original crime (e.g., in the USA, someone who is guilty of murder may have their sentence commuted to life imprisonment rather than death)
- Remission: Complete or partial cancellation of the penalty of a crime, whilst still being considered guilty of said crime (i.e., reduced penalty).
- Reprieve: Temporary postponement of a punishment, usually so that the accused can mount an appeal (especially if he or she has been sentenced to death)
- Clemency: Catch-all term for all of the above, or just referring to amnesty and pardons.
Among those who see some legitimate use for the power to pardon in some cases, there are those who see it as being susceptible to abuse if applied inconsistently, selectively, arbitrarily, or without strict, publicly accessible guidelines. Others believe that the pardon power should be used frequently as a means of infusing mercy into the justice system.
The principle of the Rule of Law is intended to be a safeguard against such arbitrary governance. The 'rule of law', in its most basic form, is the principle that no one is above the law. Thomas Paine stated in his pamphlet Common Sense (1776): "For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."
Some critics, such as ethicist Jacob Appel, argue that the pardon power is not used nearly widely enough. According to Appel, "It often seems that the principal purpose of these rare reprieves, much like the pardoning of a Thanksgiving Day turkey, is to make the pardoning politicians appear generous and affable to the electorate."