Who Deserves Mercy? State Pardons, Commutations, and the Determinants of Clemency

15 April 2022, Version 1


Though nearly 1.5 million people were incarcerated in prisons and jails in 2019, the number of clemency petitions granted by the president or state governors remains rare, in the dozens to hundreds. Political science has largely focused on presidential pardons, but this paper looks to the states for variation in pardoning practices and outcomes. I collect original data on the frequency and identity of recipients of clemency (pardons and commutations) in the states and analyze the determinants of these powers. Who is the most likely to receive mercy? I consider both state- and individual-level predictors to illuminate patterns in clemency across the states. I find governors facing election years are more likely to grant mercy, and that white, female, and non-violent offenders are overrepresented in clemency grantees. This paper provides essential insight into a rare but consequential practice, a matter of literal life and death for millions across the country.



Comments are not moderated before they are posted, but they can be removed by the site moderators if they are found to be in contravention of our Commenting Policy [opens in a new tab] - please read this policy before you post. Comments should be used for scholarly discussion of the content in question. You can find more information about how to use the commenting feature here [opens in a new tab] .
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy [opens in a new tab] and Terms of Service [opens in a new tab] apply.