What Is a Commuted Sentence?

To commute a sentence means to reduce the sentence imposed initially after a criminal conviction. For example, an initial 15-year sentence could be commuted to a five-year sentence. Similarly, a court-imposed fine could also be commuted, but this is less common.

After the sentencing process, there can sometimes be changes in the circumstances surrounding the case or the individuals involved. Commuting a sentence can be done for a wide variety of reasons, such as old age, good behavior, an (especially terminal) illness, or other factors as the circumstances around the sentenced person change.

It is important to note that a commuted sentence is not the same thing as a pardon. In fact, there are several distinct ways in which commuting a sentence differs from issuing a pardon. A pardon is full forgiveness for the crime for which the defendant was convicted, while a commutation is simply shortening the sentence. Those who are pardoned will have all civil rights restored to them, while those who have their sentences commuted will potentially remain unable to vote or remain in prison, depending on the conditions placed on the commuting of the sentence by the governor.

Commuting a sentence, like a pardon, lies only in the power of the executive branch of government and is considered a part of the “pardon power.” For crimes that are state-level offenses in Indiana, for example, only the Governor of Indiana has the power to commute sentences. For federal crimes, only the President of the United States has the power to commute sentences.

A commuted sentence is most often used as a reward for good behavior on the part of an inmate. If a sentence was unreasonably harsh compared to sentences for others committing similar crimes, that sentence may also be commuted to bring it in line with sentences for comparable offenses.

Generally speaking, any sentence can be commuted, except for those sentences related to the impeachment of a politician or for treason. Commuted sentences can be conditioned. Most commuted sentences are conditioned, which is appropriate provided that the conditions are legal, constitutional, and not impossible for the prisoner to comply with. Commuted sentences generally do not require the consent of the inmate, whereas most pardons do require the consent of the inmate. In past cases, sentences including the death penalty have been commuted to life in prison, and depending on state laws, the governor can commute a life sentence to a definite term.

With conditions attached to a commuted sentence, violations of these conditions are a distinct possibility. Violating any of the conditions typically results in the commuted sentence being voided and may even result in the person who violated the terms of the commuted sentence being arrested and sent back to prison to serve the original sentence. If the original commuted sentence has a stipulation that the governor makes the determination about whether or not the person has violated the conditions, this decision will be left in the hands of a court.

If no violation has occurred, the governor, not the legislature or judiciary, can revoke a commuted sentence in most states if the commuted sentence was based on fraudulent information or if the factual basis for granting the commuted sentence is later found to be inaccurate.

It is worth noting that while some other states, such as Kentucky and Ohio, have offered reduced sentences to lower-risk inmates due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Indiana has not yet elected to reduce sentences due to any COVID-19 risk.

Ultimately, laws and procedures surrounding commuting a sentence and sentencing for criminal cases vary widely from state to state. Each state imposes different limits on commuting a sentence. It is important to have dedicated and trusted legal representation for your criminal case from a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of your jurisdiction.

The Criminal Defense Team has the knowledge and experience to handle a wide variety of criminal cases. We have defended clients throughout Indiana, and we can lend our legal expertise to you as well. Call the Indiana criminal defense lawyers of The Criminal Defense Team today at (317) 687-8326 for a free consultation and to better understand your legal options. We have offices in Franklin, Noblesville, and Indianapolis for your convenience.