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Commuted Sentence – Definition

George Simons | October 19, 2022

Summary: Here is SoloSuit's guide on commuted sentences, how they differs from a pardon, and reasons someone might be granted one.

A commuted sentence is a term used to describe the power to reduce a sentence imposed by the judiciary. In other words, a commuted sentence is to replace a harsh sentence with a less sentence. This phrase is commonly applied in criminal law. For instance, an individual sentenced to death could receive a commuted sentence of life imprisonment.

Who can order a commuted sentence?

In the United States, a commuted sentence can be granted at the federal and state level. At the federal level, the President of the United States has the power to grant a commuted sentence for federal offenses.

Examples of federal offenses include:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Murder on federal land
  • Bank robbery
  • Immigration violations
  • Identity theft
  • International money laundering
  • Embezzlement
  • Fraud
  • Health care fraud
  • Federal sex crimes, such as child pornography

At the state level, the Governor of the state has the power to grant a commuted stance for state offenses. Examples of state offenses include:

  • Homicide
  • Theft
  • Aggravated assault
  • White-collar crimes
  • Robbery
  • Murder
  • Burglary
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Violent crimes
  • Real estate fraud

Is a commuted sentence similar to a pardon?

A commuted sentence and a pardon share one thing in common; they are both put into effect by the executive. Therefore, the legislative and judicial branches of government cannot interfere with the executive's power to issue a commutation sentence or pardon to an individual.

However, these two terms also have some major differences worth knowing. They include:

A commuted sentence only reduces the punishment. The reduction could be in terms of time, severity, or any other applicable factor. On the other hand, a pardon forgives the defendant for the crime.

Some states allow the Governor to issue a commuted sentence without the defendant's consent. But things are slightly different when it comes to pardons—the defendant must accept the pardon.

  • A commuted sentence doesn't restore the defendant's civil rights lost due to the criminal conviction. However, a pardon restores these rights.
  • Commuted sentences are usually issued on the grounds of good behavior. But pardons can be issued due to different reasons. Sometimes, the executive may grant presidential pardons to certain individuals due to political reasons.
  • A pardon frees an individual from the underlying criminal conviction in most cases. But on the other hand, a commutation does not influence the status of the individual's criminal conviction. In other words, when you are pardoned for a crime, you're no longer legally responsible for the crime. But when you receive a commuted sentence, you're still responsible for the crime. The only difference is that you'll serve a lesser sentence than the original one.

It's also important to note that commuted sentences are conditional in some jurisdictions. This means that the individual must abide by certain conditions or rules to maintain the commuted sentence.

For example, if you've been sentenced to 50 years in jail for a crime, you may receive a commuted sentence of 25 years. However, you must meet certain reasonable and lawful conditions for this to work. The original sentence may be restored if you fail to meet such conditions.

The conditions for a commuted sentence vary depending on the specifics of the case and the nature of the crime. However, in most cases, these conditions require the individual to be a 'law-abiding citizen.' These conditions apply until the end of the commuted sentence.

As mentioned before, the conditions for commutation must also be lawful and reasonable. If not, the judiciary might invalidate them. The term 'reasonable' means something that any ordinary person should be able to do without much difficulty. For example, a commuted sentence may be issued under the condition that the individual maintains good conduct and avoids breaking the law throughout the entirety of the sentence.

What happens if you violate the conditions of a commuted sentence?

Violating the conditions of a commuted sentence typically cancels the commuted sentence. When that happens, the President or Governor will have the authority to reinstate the original sentence. Unfortunately, this could also mean that the convicted individual will have to serve the full term of the original sentence.

Does violating the conditions of a commuted sentence warrant a court hearing?

This usually depends on state laws. In most states, an individual who violates the conditions of a commuted sentence may not be granted a court hearing. Instead, they may be arrested and sent back to prison without an explanation.

What happens if you commit a crime while serving a commuted sentence?

Suppose you commit another crime while serving a commuted sentence. In that case, you may be required to serve the full term of the original sentence. After that, the hearing for the new crime will begin.

What are some reasons for a commuted sentence?

The President of the United States, the Governor of a US state, or a pardoning board might issue a commuted sentence based on different reasons. Typically, a sentence may be commuted for any of the following reasons.

  • Good behavior: The convicted individual is often required to abide by a certain set of rules while serving their original sentence. As a result, they may be eligible for a commuted sentence if they abide by these rules.
  • Illness: Certain types of illnesses, such as terminal cancer, might warrant the need for a commuted sentence.
  • Old age: Some individuals may be eligible for a commuted sentence due to age-related reasons. This mostly happens if they've already served a certain portion of the original sentence.
  • Harsh sentences: When a sentence is unreasonably harsh compared to other similar cases, the President, Governor, or pardoning board might issue a commuted sentence.

How to apply for a commuted sentence

To apply for a commuted sentence, you'll need to fill out a Petition for Commutation of Sentence and send it to the Office of the Pardon Attorney through the warden. However, this only applies to federal criminal offenses. If you've been convicted by the state, contact the office of the Governor of your state or the state's pardoning and paroling authority to petition for a commuted sentence.

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