Reprieves Definition – Reprieves Meaning & Legal Government Definition

Reprieve Definition : Generally, a reprieve is a postponement of the punishment for someone convicted of a crime. This temporarily delays the imposition of a sentence after a judge orders the sentence. A reprieve remains in place for a certain period of time. It cannot go on indefinitely so that the defendant never serves his sentence. 

Even though the reprieve is not in place forever, it can remain until some future event occurs. For example, some state governors grant reprieves in death penalty cases until a study wraps up on capital punishment issues. 

However, the ultimate outcome after the reprieve expires could be an overturned conviction or vacated sentence. This would likely happen in cases where new evidence turns up or evidence used to convict the defendant is thrown out. 

Presidential Reprieve Meaning

Above all, presidential reprieves apply only to federal crimes. This is a constitutional power for the president to carry out. The president does not need approval from any other government body or official to issue a reprieve. 

There are very few limits on presidential clemency powers, including for reprieves. Even if a court or Congress disagrees with a reprieve in a case, they are powerless to overturn it. Along those lines, no government official or body can decide that the reprieve lasts for too long. The president retains sole discretion over when and for how long to implement a reprieve. 

The major limitations on the president’s power to issue a reprieve are that it cannot be used in cases of impeachment or to indefinitely postpone a sentence. If the president wants to relieve a defendant of serving a prison sentence, he can simply issue a pardon. The president can issue a pardon in advance of a criminal conviction. But a reprieve focuses on the time between the conviction and the start date of the sentence. 

Reprieves - What They Are and How They Work

The reprieve power is a much narrower power than the pardon. It means to delay the punishment of someone and is a temporary power of the President to determine if other options are available for the person in question. It is the most limited of the clemency powers.

The President of the United States is not the only one granted with this power. Most state constitutions give the power of pardon and reprieve to the governor in his or her capacity as executive officer of the state. The United States Constitution only provides the president with the power to pardon individuals convicted of federal criminal crimes. The governor of a state is able to pardon those individuals convicted of state crimes who are incarcerated in the governor’s state.

Reprieve can be granted for a variety of different reasons including the possibility of newly discovered evidence, last-minute appeals, or the governor’s concern that there might be an error in the record that should be examined. It is important to note that this is only a delay in the criminal process. It is not a pardon or reduction or commutation of the sentence. It is granted for a specific amount of time and once that time expires, the punishment or sentence of that crime is imposed again.

The pardon power is used more than the reprieve power, however, governors typically use the reprieve power more than a United States president. In West Virginia, the Secretary of State website states that over the 36 years of data kept, the West Virginia governor has granted 641 reprieves. Reasons for granting these included the postponement of incarceration or shortening the period of incarceration due to reasons such as extenuating circumstances in the case or even overcrowded prison and jail facilities.

Reprieve Overview

First of all, a reprieve is one of the few forms of clemency a convicted individual may receive. Although not as broad as a pardon, a reprieve is still helpful to those convicted of a crime. Second, the process and requirements for reprieves vary for state and federal crimes. The president may only grant reprieves for individuals convicted of federal crimes. On the other hand, state governors have the power to issue reprieves for state crimes. 

What are Presidential Pardons and Reprieves ?

  • A presidential pardon is much broader than a reprieve. It allows the convicted individual to reintegrate into society without any of the stigma of a criminal conviction. However, a reprieve is only a delay for the start of the defendant’s punishment. 
  • In addition, a presidential reprieve does not address the underlying conviction of the defendant. As such, the president does not have to decide whether he thinks the defendant is guilty or innocent before issuing a reprieve. The president can choose to restore a defendant’s rights as a full citizen of the U.S. by issuing a pardon for federal crimes. 
  • In some cases, a president could issue a reprieve so that he has more time to decide on a potential pardon before a sentence begins. Ultimately, the president can issue a pardon at any point in a federal criminal case. Of course, the major limit on that constitutional power is for crimes involving impeachment. 

How Do You Define Reprieve in Legal Terms

  • In legal terms, a reprieve is a type of clemency that pauses the implementation of a criminal sentence.
  • Notably, the legal definition of a reprieve confines it to a temporary suspension of a sentence.
  • It makes clear that a reprieve does not delay a sentence indefinitely. Likewise, it does not overturn a conviction or vacate a sentence. 

What Does Judicial Reprieve Mean ?

  • A judicial reprieve is no longer constitutional. It came from the English common law practice of judges issuing a stay of punishment after handing down a sentence.
  • The stay was supposed to allow the defendant time to seek a pardon without first having to serve time in prison. Historically, judges used a judicial reprieve in criminal cases in which the juries handed down verdicts that the judges did not agree with.
  • Essentially, they treated it as a backstop against unjust convictions based on flimsy evidence. 

Reprieves Definition Government :

  • The government body with the power to issue reprieves is the executive branch. Specifically, the president retains this clemency power per Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution.
  • Although this form of clemency does not extend as far as a pardon or commutation of sentence, the reprieve is still a powerful tool.
  • The president can use this tool to draw attention to cases of injustice or provide a second chance for the defendant to challenge his conviction and/or sentence. 

Who Were Recently Reprieved ?

  • In general, there are far more examples of individuals granted presidential pardons or sentence commutations than presidential reprieves. This is because state governors are more likely to issue reprieves than the president. State governors use reprieves as a tool to delay executions or for emergency reasons before a sentence starts.  
  • The Department of Justice maintains records on the clemency petitions granted by each president. Most recently, President George W. Bush issued two reprieves in 2001. 

Why is Reprieve Important ?

  • A reprieve is an important first step in post-conviction relief. It can delay the start of a prison sentence or execution. As a result, the reprieved defendant’s defense team can try to overturn the conviction.
  • This could be based on new evidence or other issues. Also, a reprieve may allow a defendant to delay his sentence while a new favorable law is passed. 
  • One of the broader reasons for using a reprieve is to send a message to the public and other government institutions regarding injustice.
  • The president could take a stance against constitutional violations, prosecutorial misconduct and imbalances of power by issuing a reprieve. Above all, it signals that the president is not confident that the sentence handed down should be carried out. 

Is Reprieve Positive or Negative?

  • A reprieve is a positive form of post-conviction relief. Even though it does not automatically overturn the conviction, reduce the sentence or pardon the defendant, a reprieve can be the first step on that path. In some cases, defendants receive a reprieve to allow time for filing or reviewing a pardon petition. 
  • A defendant hoping for a reprieve and eventual pardon should work with a clemency attorney like Brandon Sample to handle all aspects of both petitions. This ensures that the applications are consistent and do not cause delays in their review. An experienced clemency lawyer can also navigate the process of alerting the Office of Pardon Attorney that the reprieve request is urgent and submitted for the purpose of seeking a pardon. 
  • For defendants facing the death penalty, a reprieve can open new doors for appeal opportunities. In almost all cases, the defendant would remain in custody during the temporary stay. Even so, the defendant can make valuable progress on his appeal or other post-conviction relief. 
  • Undoubtedly, a reprieve offers more options to a defendant looking to shed light on injustices in the criminal trial. It can certainly be a stepping stone to more permanent and favorable forms of relief. 

Notable Reprieves


Reprieve Meaning

A few notable reprieves granted by governors have occurred over the years. Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado granted one to Nathan Dunlap in 2011. Nathan Dunlap was convicted of killing four people in Aurora, Colorado at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993. Dunlap was sentenced to death. Governor Hickenlooper granted an extraordinary temporary reprieve. This meant that Dunlap would not be executed while Governor Hickenlooper is in office. This extraordinary reprieve was the first in Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper stated that the Colorado death penalty system is arbitrary and imperfect.

Governor Hickenlooper is not the only governor who has used their disagreement with the death penalty as a reason to grant a reprieve. Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon granted one to Gary Haugen. Haugen was a twice-convicted murderer who neither asked for a one nor wanted a one. Haugen was scheduled for execution for the killings. Governor Kitzhaber blocked Haugen’s scheduled execution by granting the reprieve. Governor Kitzhaber stated that the death penalty would not occur while he was governor. Governor Kitzhaber was not supportive of the death penalty politically. This raised the legal question over whether or not the person receiving one must accept it. Governor Kitzhaber said he would forestall all executions with reprieves until he was out of office.

The granting of reprieves usually comes at the last minute. Governor Eric Greitens of Missouri granted a reprieve to Marcellus Williams just hours before Williams was scheduled to be executed in August 2017. Governor Greitens stated that it was granted for more time to assess the case against Williams. Governor Greitens ordered a five-person “board of inquiry” to look into evidence in the case against Williams and then make a recommendation to the governor. For those who have been on death row for some time, new findings of evidence, especially those based on DNA, is a frequent reason why reprieves are granted.

Certain states allow for emergency reprieves. Texas allows reprieves for emergency medical reasons, family emergencies, or emergency reprieve to attend civil court proceedings. The governor must still grant it upon a written recommendation of a majority of the Texas Board of Clemency.

The Pardon Power

Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution grants the pardon power to the president. The president “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”Most laymen use the words “pardon power” to generally describe this power gifted to the office of the president by the Constitution.

However, the power of the president consists of multiple options for the president to consider, including a full pardon of the crime, commutation of a sentence, remission of fine or restitution, or a reprieve. These are considered the powers of executive clemency. All requests for executive clemency, including reprieves, must first go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. This Office reviews and investigates each petition and prepares a recommendation for the President.

Many use the phrase “stay of execution” in lieu of the technical term reprieve. However, reprieve meaning goes beyond just a “stay” and has transformed into a nuanced pardon power.

The Clemency Arsenal

The power in a governor and president’s pardon arsenal is a useful tool to achieve a quick action when it comes to sentencing, especially executions. Traditionally not used as often as the pardon power, reprieves have steadily increased, especially by the use of governors.

Reprieves have generally be issued for emergency or personal reasons for the prisoners, with their sentences resuming shortly after. It will be interesting to see if the rise in issuing them, especially by governors because of their ideological or moral beliefs about the death penalty, continues to increase. It is important to note that while governors issued a reprieve, usually by executive order, this order is only safe while the governor who issued it is currently in office. How these political reprieves will stay in effect remains to be seen.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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