What is a Commuted Sentence?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A commuted sentence is a legal sentence which has been adjusted by an official to make the sentence less severe. Classically, commuted sentences come in the form of reduced imprisonment, although commutation can also involve a reduction of fees and other penalties ordered by a judge. In order to receive a commuted sentence, a prisoner must apply to a high-ranking government official such as the president or prime minister of the country or the governor of a state or province.

A commuted sentence is less severe than the original sentence.
A commuted sentence is less severe than the original sentence.

The word "commutation" in the sense of a reduction of penalties entered the English language in the 1600s. It comes from the Latin commutare, which means "to change altogether;" this same root word is behind "commuter" and "commute" as well, incidentally. In its original sense in the 1400s, "commutation" referred to receiving service in cash payments, rather than in kind, and it marked a radical shift in the feudal system of lords and serfs which had held sway over most of Europe. Instead of being forced to labor for a lord, a serf could instead pay the lord his obligations in cash, thereby enabling more personal freedom.

It is important to understand that a commuted sentence is not the same thing is a pardon or clemency. When someone is pardoned, a state official forgives the crime which he or she was convicted of, and waives punishment without qualifications. When a sentence is commuted, the criminal is not forgiven, and the commutation may be conditional; the implication is that the crime does indeed deserve punishment, but the punishment is excessive, or it poses an unreasonable hardship.

Commutation of sentence applications are typically reviewed by other officials in addition to the head of state, and these officials may offer opinions or commentary on the issue. Typically, things like the prisoner's original crime and sentence, along with his or her behavior in prison, are taken into account when reviewing a request for a commuted sentence. Examiners may also consider whether or not the prisoner has shown genuine remorse and a desire to atone and improve when deciding whether or not to grant a commutation request.

On occasion, a commuted sentence can be a cause for controversy. In 2007, for example, American President George Bush commuted the sentence of white collar criminal Lewis "Scooter" Libby. This triggered an investigation by the US Congress, which was concerned that Mr. Bush had abused his executive privileges by commuting the prison sentence of a top administration official who was doing time as a direct consequences of actions he undertook while working for the president.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


In an armed robbery, the witness said there was a gun, but no gun shows on the video. He was given 20 years. He has some previous sentences due to drunk driving to probation etc in Ohio. The other people involved got four years and the other seven years.

Is this something a commuted sentence might work for?


I am trying to get this commutation for my husband, who is serving a 25-to-life-imprisonment. I don't know if it gets through. Nobody really can answer how it works in general, except what I read here and in the net, but what counts for a prisoner to get a commutation?


A friend of mine received a commutation of sentence when he went to jail on a burglary sentence. He had been in jail for five years on a ten-year sentence but he was let out after just 6.

He was let out for good behavior and because he got his GED while he was inside. He was able to prove that he had rehabilitated himself and that he no longer posed a threat to society. I was proud of him. He really cleaned himself up in there.

What are the criteria that are usually used for giving a commuted sentence? It doesn't seem like anyone serves their full prison sentence these days. Commuted sentences are alsmost as common as jail sentences themselves.

What I want to know is if this is for valid legal reasons, or only because many of our prisons are overcrowded and they are trying to create room?

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