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Reprieve means the temporary suspension or delay in the implementation of a criminal sentence ordered by the court. During the time of the reprieve, the implementation of the sentence is postponed. Nevertheless, that does not imply that the sentencing and its legal effects are no longer enforceable. Once the reprieve expires, the criminal sentence will be executed as ordered by the court unless there are legal circumstances that change the initial sentencing, like the result of an appeal. In no case shall the reprieve indefinitely postpone the sentence.

Commonly, the word reprieve refers to the temporary suspension of a death penalty sentence. However, a reprieve may also apply to other types of criminal sentences, such as imprisonment.

Considering that a reprieve is only temporary, it should be differentiated from a pardon or commutation of the sentence, all of which are permanent.

Classified as a form of executive clemency power, granting reprieve is within the scope of authority of the executive branch. At the federal level, according to Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, except in cases of impeachment, the President has the power to grant reprieves for offenses against the United States (federal crimes). At the state level, the governors may be entitled to grant reprieves under the rules of each state’s constitution. For example:

  • Article V Sec. 8 of the California state Constitution provides that “[s]ubject to application procedures provided by statute, the Governor, on conditions the Governor deems proper, may grant a reprieve, pardon, and commutation, after sentence, except in case of impeachment. The Governor shall report to the Legislature each reprieve, pardon, and commutation granted, stating the pertinent facts and the reasons for granting it.”
  • Article IV Sec. 4 of the New York state Constitution provides that “[t]he governor shall have the power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after conviction, for all offenses except treason and cases of impeachment, upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations, as he or she may think proper, subject to such regulations as may be provided by law relative to the manner of applying for pardons.”
  • Article V Sec. 1 of the New Jersey state Constitution provides that “[t]he Governor may grant pardons and reprieves in all cases other than impeachment and treason, and may suspend and remit fines and forfeitures. A commission or other body may be established by law to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of executive clemency.”
  • Article IV Sec. 11 of the Texas state Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal cases, except treason and impeachment, the Governor shall have power, after conviction or successful completion of a term of deferred adjudication community supervision, on the written signed recommendation and advice of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, or a majority thereof, to grant reprieves and commutations of punishment and pardons.”

Reasons to grant a reprieve include, among others, the possibility of newly discovered evidence, awaiting the result of an appeal, emergency medical reasons, or family emergencies. For instance, in January 2020, the Ohio governor issued a six-month reprieve to a death row prisoner because of a lower court’s expressed concern and a subsequent appeal on whether Ohio’s death penalty procedure violates the Eighth Amendment. Other notable cases include the Colorado Governor who granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlap in 2011, the Oregon Governor who granted a reprieve to Gary Haugen in 2011, and the Missouri Governor who granted a reprieve to Marcellus Williams in 2017.

[Last updated in August of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]