Commutation in California – Explained

What’s Commutation – Eligibility and Benefits

For the past few decades, California has been known for its tough-on-crime policies and its extremely harsh sentences. Fortunately, the California Constitution gives an individual the right to seek a commutation of sentence. Commutation is a form of clemency that the governor has the authority to grant and is an important form of post-conviction relief. In short, commutation is a reduction or a termination of a sentence.

Almost anyone who has been convicted of a state criminal offense can apply to have their sentence commuted, with the only exception being for individuals that have been impeached. Notably, commutation applies only to state crimes, and the governor lacks the power to commute sentences for convictions in another state or country, or for federal or military offenses.

The main benefit of a commutation is the ability of an individual to leave prison or jail immediately, to become eligible for parole or to accelerate individual’s parole hearing, or to change a death sentence to a life sentence. In addition, a commutation can be used to reduce or eliminate a fine or another penalty ordered by a court.

It is important to note, that a commutation does not change or reverse the finding of guilt, and unlike a certificate of rehabilitation or a pardon, it does not restore civil rights.

Factors to be considered for Commutation

For the most part, the governor has an almost absolute authority when it comes to commutations. And while there are no set criteria in deciding whether commutation would be granted, there are a number of factors that the Governor’s office would look at and consider, including:

  • The severity of the offense and the harm caused to victims;
  • The applicant’s age at the time of the crime and the time already served;
  • The applicant’s behavior while incarcerated, as well as whether the applicant has obtained any certificates or education while incarcerated, and if the applicant sought treatment or participated in rehabilitative programs;
  • Evidence of remorse for the committed offenses as well as evidence of victim restitution or efforts to remedy the impact the offense had on the victims;
  • The applicant’s age at the time of the application and the need for commutation;
  • The potential impact on the community, if the applicant is released, mainly the effect on public safety, and whether a commutation will be in the interest of justice;
  • Public opinion, the opinion of victims, and/or the District Attorney;
  • Whether the applicant has been rehabilitated and can be re-integrated into society;
  • The applicant’s plans for re-entering society, including plans for employment and housing upon release.

In addition, the governor would look at any other factors that may act as indicators as to whether a commutation is warranted or not, like the applicant’s criminal history or whether the applicant is suffering from a terminal illness or a disability.

Commutations are not easy to obtain, and the help of an experienced post-conviction attorney can be crucial. If you or a loved one are considering applying for commutation, you can contact the experienced appeals attorneys at the Justice Firm today for a case evaluation locally at (310) 914-2444 or at our Toll-Free number at (866) 695-6714, or click here. 


Before submitting an application for commutation, the applicant has to notify the district attorney in the county where he or she was convicted by submitting a notice of intent to apply for clemency. In most cases, the notice has to be given ten days before filing the application. After receipt of the notice, the district attorney has the option of submitting written recommendation, and will also notify the victims, who may submit their own recommendations.

Ten days after notification, the applicant can submit his or hers application for commutation. Although not required, submitting evidence in favor of a commutation could be vital for a successful application. These evidence should include information and documents demonstrating treatment, post-conviction rehabilitation efforts, including education, training, or other self-improvement activities, as well as letters of support, and if the application is based on a chronic or terminal illness, the applicant must submit an authorization for release of medical information. All applications for commutation have to be notarized.

After submitting the application, it is up to the governor to decide what to do. There are no time limits for the governor to act on an application, although, individuals facing deportation or have some other urgent need, could receive an expedited consideration. The governor is not required to grant a commutation. Moreover, the governor does not have to even consider the application and can deny it without any further investigation. However, if the governor decides to consider the application, while not obliged to do so, he or she would most likely refer the application to the Board of Parole Hearings, which would conduct an investigation and would make recommendations to the governor.

If the governor decides to act on an application, the only real limitation comes in cases where the applicant has two or more felony convictions. In those cases, if the governor decides to grant commutation, he or she is required to submit the application to the California Supreme Court and to obtain consent by a majority of the court.

An individual is allowed to apply for commutation once every three years. During the three-year period between applications, the applicant can file a Reapplication for Clemency and request that the governor reconsiders the decision to deny or not act on the application. During the reapplication, no additional evidence that were not included with the original application can be submitted. The reapplication is simply a renewed request for the governor to take a second look at the application.

Generally, approval of an application for commutation is hard to obtain. Most often, commutation of a sentence is granted when there is a demonstration of good behavior, post-conviction education and rehabilitation, and/or to reduce an unfairly harsh sentence. For purposes of a commutation, a sentence would be considered unduly harsh because the laws at the time of sentencing were harsher, or the applicant was very young when he or she committed the offense, or if the applicant can demonstrate evidence of “intimate partner battering” or other abuse.

Applying for commutation or any other post-conviction relief can be a long and complicated process, which requires deep knowledge of the law and extensive experience in the process.

At the Justice Firm, our highly skilled and experienced appeals attorneys are ready to help and answer any questions you might have and if you or a loved one is currently serving a sentence for a state crime in California that you believe is overly punitive and/or disproportionate and would like to apply for commutation or another post-conviction relief, you can contact our California attorneys today locally at (310) 914-2444 or at our Toll-Free number at (866) 695-6714, or click here.

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