Commutation (law)

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In law, a commutation is the substitution of a lesser penalty for that given after a conviction for a crime. The penalty can be lessened in severity, in duration, or both. [1] Unlike most pardons by government and overturnings by the court (a full overturning is equal to an acquittal), a commutation does not affect the status of a defendant's underlying criminal conviction.

In law, a conviction is the verdict that usually results when a court of law finds a defendant guilty of a crime. The opposite of a conviction is an acquittal. In Scotland and in the Netherlands, there can also be a verdict of "not proven", which counts as an acquittal. There are also cases in which the court orders that a defendant not be convicted, despite being found guilty; in England, Wales, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand the mechanism for this is a discharge.

A pardon is a government decision to allow a person to be absolved of guilt for an alleged crime or other legal offense, as if the act never occurred. The pardon may be granted before or after conviction for the crime, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction.

In common law jurisdictions, an acquittal certifies that the accused is free from the charge of an offense, as far as the criminal law is concerned. This is so even where the prosecution is simply abandoned by the prosecution. The finality of an acquittal is dependent on the jurisdiction. In some countries, such as the United States, an acquittal operates to bar the retrial of the accused for the same offense, even if new evidence surfaces that further implicates the accused. The effect of an acquittal on criminal proceedings is the same whether it results from a jury verdict, or whether it results from the operation of some other rule that discharges the accused. In other countries, the prosecuting authority may appeal an acquittal similar to how a defendant may appeal a conviction.

Although the concept of commutation may be used to broadly describe the substitution of a lesser criminal penalty for the original sentence, some jurisdictions have historically used the term only for the substitution of a sentence of a different character than was originally imposed by the court. [2] For example, the substitution of a sentence of parole for the original sentence of incarceration. A jurisdiction that uses that definition of commutation would use another term, such as a remission, to describe a reduction of a penalty that does not change its character. [2]

A commutation does not reverse a conviction and the recipient of a commutation remains guilty in accordance with the original conviction. [3] For example, someone convicted of capital murder may have their sentence of death commuted to life imprisonment, a lessening of the punishment that does not affect the underlying criminal conviction, as may occur on a discretionary basis or following upon a change in the law or judicial ruling that limits or eliminates the death penalty. [4]

In some jurisdictions a commutation of sentence may be conditional, meaning that the convicted person may be required to abide by specified conditions or may lose the benefit of the commutation. The conditions must be lawful and reasonable, and will typically expire when the convicted completes any remaining portion of his or her sentence. For example, the pardon may be conditioned upon the person's being a law-abiding citizen, such that if the beneficiary of the commutation commits a new crime before the condition expires the original sentence may be restored. [5] [6]

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Federal pardons in the United States US pardons by the federal government

A federal pardon in the United States is the action of the President of the United States that completely sets aside or commutes (lessens) the punishment for a federal crime. The authority to take such action is granted to the president by Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Constitution, the president's clemency power extends only to federal criminal offenses. All requests for executive clemency for federal offenses are directed to the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice for investigation and review. The beneficiary of a pardon needs to accept the pardon and acknowledge that the crime did take place.


  1. Larson, Aaron. "How to Apply for a Pardon or Commutation of Sentence". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  2. 1 2 Brett, Peter (1957). "Conditional Pardons and the Commutation of Death Sentences". The Modern Law Review. 20 (2): 131–147. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2230.1957.tb00432.x.
  3. "Clemency". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  4. "Time on Death Row". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  5. 67A. Corpus Juris Secundum, Pardon and Parole, § 38. West Publishing Company. 2006.
  6. "White v. State, 717 S.W.2d 309, 310 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1986)". Google Scholar. Retrieved 23 May 2017.