Avoiding Legal Trouble

What's The Difference Between A Pardon And A Commuted Sentence?

Although appealing a criminal case is the most common way people convicted of crimes attempt to have those court decisions overturned, there are other avenues a person can pursue that may also offer a chance a freedom. Specifically, you can apply for a pardon or a commuted sentence. Though these two legal concepts achieve the same goal, they are not the same thing. Here's the difference and what you need to do to pursue either option.

Pardon vs. Commuted Sentence

Pardons and commuted sentences are both conferred by government officials. A pardon, however, completely forgives an individual for the crime he or she committed and that person is immediately relieved of the consequences associated with that crime (e.g. released from jail).

The pardon can be unconditional or conditional. An unconditional pardon wipes the slate completely clean, and the person's civil rights (e.g., ability to vote) are immediately fully restored to the individual. A conditional pardon only becomes effective only after the person fulfils the imposed condition. Depending on the circumstances, the crime may or may not be purged from the person's criminal record.

Though innocence of the crime isn't required to receive a pardon, sometimes government officials will issue pardons in cases where there's evidence the defendants didn't commit the offenses. Rather than spend time and money going through the appeals process, the government official will take a shortcut and pardon the person.

When a person receives a commuted sentence, on the other hand, the punishment conferred by the court is simply reduced. Typically this translates to a decreased sentence; though it can also include a reduction in fees and other penalties. The individual is still considered guilty of the crime and the mark will remain on his or her criminal record.

Commutations are typically given in cases when it's fairly clear the punishment doesn't fit the crime or can be considered excessive. In 2011, President Barack Obama commuted the 22-year sentence of a woman who was found guilty of selling crack cocaine. Part of the reasoning for the commutation was the disparity in sentencing based solely on the form of drug that was sold. If the woman had been found guilty of selling powdered cocaine, her sentence would have been significantly less.

Pursuing a Pardon or Commutation

The first step to applying for a pardon or commutation is to petition the correct government official. Requests for pardons and commutation of federal crimes are overseen by the President of the United States and handled by the Office of the Pardon Attorney division of the Department of Justice. Requests related to crimes that occur at the state level are handled either by the governor or the parole board depending on the state.

All applications are typically reviewed by a barrage of officials before they even reach their final destination. When determining whether or not a pardon or commutation is warranted, these officials look at a variety of factors, including:

  • The seriousness of the crime
  • The person's behavior while incarcerated
  • The public nature of the case (the more high profile the case, the more likely it will get seen by the elected official)
  • Whether the person has shown true remorse or been rehabilitated
  • How the sentencing compares to the crime
  • Any new evidence that's come to light
  • Past crimes committed

You'll want to submit any evidence that paints you in the best light possible and supports your argument that you deserve a pardon or commutation. For example, submit evaluations from a psychiatrist attesting to your rehabilitation.

Pursuing a pardon or a commutation can be challenging, so hiring a criminal defense attorney to help you can increase your chances of getting the outcome you want. Talk to a lawyer about this option today.