American Government and Politics

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

Authors

Abstract

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.

Content

Thumbnail image of GundersonSPPC.pdf

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