The Meaning of Clemency: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know what the word clemency means? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word clemency, including its meaning, usage, synonyms, origin, and more!

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What does the word clemency mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, clemency is a noun that has two definitions. The first definition is a merciful disposition or act of leniency performed to moderate the severity of a certain punishment. The second is used to describe a pleasant mildness, usually in reference to weather. 

Clemency is often used in a legal sense to describe a process in which a person convicted of a criminal offense is granted relief from some sentence or punishment from a court. A convicted person can be granted clemency though a pardon or by having their sentence commuted. A pardon completely exempts an individual that has been convicted of receiving any remaining punishment or consequences, whereas a commutation reduces a prison sentence either fully or partially, according to American Progress

Usually, state constitutions place the power to grant clemency with the governor of the state, but it differs state to state. There is also often a clemency board which the governor works with. There are also clemency grants under federal law, which are submitted through the Department of Justice and granted by the president, though the president can grant them independently. This is called executive clemency power. For example, President of the United States  Donald Trump received over 8000 clemency petitions for federal crimes but granted 35 of them. The Supreme Court and the White House work together in federal clemency cases.

Clemency is necessary because sometimes the criminal justice system produces unjust outcomes. It is known as the fail safe of the judicial system. It is useful when people may be wrongly convicted of a crime that gives them a life sentence or the death penalty, or when a person’s sentence far exceeds the severity of the crime. While they are not a replacement for reforming the criminal justice system, it can be used to address systemic failures in the system while people are waiting for reform. 

Clemency is also the name of a film that follows the story of a prison warden named Bernadine, played by Alfre Woodard, who must confront the toll her job takes on her and finds connection with the man she must execute, according to IMDb. The film premiered in 2019 and won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival. The film was written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu.

What is the etymology of the word clemency?

According to Etymonline, the word clemency was first used in the 1550s to mean mildness or gentleness shown by authority. This word comes from the Latin clementia, meaning calmness or gentleness, from clemens meaning calm or milkd. This word is related to the Latin word clinare, meaning to lean. This is likely from the root klei- meaning to lean and the participle suffix menos. Before the word clemency, the word clemence was used as a noun in the same way in the late 15th century.The adjective clement has been used since the late 15th century though the 1620s, but is now only used to refer to the weather.

What are synonyms and antonyms for the word clemency?

There are many different words that have similar meanings to the word clemency, but they may take on a less legal connotation. Someone might choose to use a synonym, which is a word that has the same definition as another word or phrase, if they want to avoid repeating the same word or if they want to expand their vocabulary. The below list of synonyms for the word clemency is provided by Thesaurus.

  • lenity
  • gentleness
  • humanity
  • charity
  • mildness
  • kindness
  • lenience
  • endurance
  • soft-heartedness
  • forbearance
  • justness
  • caritas
  • reprieve
  • lifesaver
  • grace
  • mercy
  • fairness
  • mercifulness
  • forgiveness
  • indulgence
  • compassion
  • toleration
  • leniency
  • tolerance
  • moderation
  • tenderness
  • sufferance
  • equitableness

There are also many different words that mean the opposite of clemency. These words are called antonyms. Someone might choose to use an antonym because they would like to be concise in the way they describe something that is the opposite of clemency. The below list of antonyms is also from Thesaurus.

  • truculence
  • cruelty
  • rancor
  • animality
  • despotism
  • brutishness
  • coldness
  • mercilessness
  • spite
  • malice
  • viciousness
  • torture
  • unfeelingness
  • spitefulness
  • malignity
  • inhumanity
  • insensibility
  • bestiality
  • heartlessness
  • insensitiveness
  • fiendishness
  • harshness
  • wickedness
  • savageness
  • ruthlessness
  • brutality
  • murderousness
  • hard-heartedness
  • barbarism
  • sadism
  • venom
  • callousness
  • unkindness
  • fierceness
  • bloodthirstiness
  • coarseness
  • ferocity
  • masochism
  • savagery
  • severity
  • barbarity
  • persecution
  • depravity

How can the word clemency be used in a sentence?

The word clemency can be used in two different ways, either to describe weather, or to describe the commutation or erasal of a prison sentence or punishment that was performed unjustly. In this example, the word clemency will be used to refer to someone who is granted freedom from their unjust punishments. Cara and Alan read the newspaper.

Cara: Wow.

Alan: What?

Cara: This man who has been incarcerated for 30 years at the local prison has just been released. He was granted clemency when there were new DNA discoveries made at the crime scene that mean he couldn’t have been there. He has argued for his innocence the whole time.

Alan: That’s so sad.

Overall, the word clemency can either mean a merciful disposition or act of leniency to moderate due punishment, or it can be used to describe a pleasant mildness of weather. This is most often used to refer to a prison sentence being reduced or commuted due to undue punishment by the criminal justice system.