Presidential clemency, most often a commutation of a criminal sentence, is a last-ditch effort to have a reduced because of its harshness or an inordinate amount of time served by the offender. Presidential clemency powers are rarely exercised and it happens only after a U.S. Justice Department clemency investigation.. But it does happen.

In fact, at the end of April 2022, six Texans were granted a commutation by President Biden. These people were serving long sentences in federal prison for non-violent drug crimes.


But what does it mean for a sentence to be commuted? Is it the same as a pardon? How does the process work – and for which types of crimes? Here’s what you need to know about Presidential commutations and pardons.


What Is Commutation?


A commutation is a form of something called clemency. It works to reduce the penalties that one faces for a crime. In the case of presidential commutations, the crimes must be a federal type. Commutation can reduce a prison sentence but can also help to reduce any fines required to be paid by the court.


A sentence that has been commuted will replace the original sentencing handed down by the court.


How Does It Compare to a Pardon?


Most people have heard the term “Presidential pardon” before. Pardoning power is something left to the discretion of the executive branch and it’s not something that can be overridden by the judicial or legislative branches of government.


Commutation is a process that is under the umbrella of the executive pardoning power bestowed to the President, but there are big differences between pardons and commutations.


For one, pardons will forgive the crime but a commutation will only reduce the sentence for the crime a person has been convicted of. Also, a prisoner must accept a pardon but commuted sentences can be done without the consent of the prisoner in some places.


Any civil rights that may be lost with a conviction are restored through a pardon, but not through a commutation. Lastly, prisoners typically earn a commutation through their reported good behavior while a pardon can be issued for several different reasons, often political in nature.


Finally, a pardon is not exoneration. Pardon is an act ov forgiveness while exoneration is a declaration of factual innocence.


How Commutations Work


As part of the pardoning power, commutations are controlled by the executive branch. At the state level, that’s the governor, and on the federal level, that’s the President. Federal sentences can only be commuted by the President.

Commutation is typically a reward for good behavior, but it can also be a remedy to sentences that are unusually harsh. The state cannot revoke a sentence that has been commuted unless it was obtained fraudulently.


What Types of Sentences Can Be Commuted?


Almost all types of sentences can be commuted with the exception of those handed down for treason or impeachment. There is no limit to exercising commutation as long as it was done by the government in good faith.

However, there are conditional commutations that can be given. Almost all commutations come with the caveat that the person who has their sentence commuted must remain a law-abiding citizen – and any conditions attached must be followed until the end of the sentence that has been commuted.


What If Conditions are Violated?


If there are conditions attached to commutations, and they are violated, then what happens next? The President may then choose to reinstate the sentence, and the perpetrator will have to serve their original maximum term.

If a commuted sentence is revoked, then prisoners are guaranteed the right to due process before the government does so.


Who Is Eligible?


There are many regulations that cover commutations. Those seeking relief must meet the requirements to be considered, such as:


  • They must be seeking a commutation for a federal conviction
  • They must have started the sentence they’re asking to be commuted
  • Any special assessment fees must be paid


If you are eligible for commutation, then you must submit an application with the Department of Justice for a commutation. For this application, you must get together and present information to the Department of Justice that gives them a thorough understanding of the circumstances surrounding the case as well as the case history.


You must also include a detailed account of the facts of the case, why you are seeking clemency, and information about your criminal history.


It can be time-consuming to gather all this information, and any mistakes can ruin your chances at a commutation, ultimately ending in a denial. You also risk being charged with fraud by the Department of Justice if the information in the application is incomplete or inaccurate, so getting the help of an experienced attorney is paramount to your success.