A commuted sentence is a legal sentence which has been adjusted by an official to make the sentence less severe. Classically, commuted sentences come in the form of reduced imprisonment, although commutation can also involve a reduction of fees and other penalties ordered by a judge. In order to receive a commuted sentence, a prisoner must apply to a high-ranking government official such as the president or prime minister of the country or the governor of a state or province.
The word "commutation" in the sense of a reduction of penalties entered the English language in the 1600s. It comes from the Latin commutare, which means "to change altogether;" this same root word is behind "commuter" and "commute" as well, incidentally. In its original sense in the 1400s, "commutation" referred to receiving service in cash payments, rather than in kind, and it marked a radical shift in the feudal system of lords and serfs which had held sway over most of Europe. Instead of being forced to labor for a lord, a serf could instead pay the lord his obligations in cash, thereby enabling more personal freedom.
It is important to understand that a commuted sentence is not the same thing is a pardon or clemency. When someone is pardoned, a state official forgives the crime which he or she was convicted of, and waives punishment without qualifications. When a sentence is commuted, the criminal is not forgiven, and the commutation may be conditional; the implication is that the crime does indeed deserve punishment, but the punishment is excessive, or it poses an unreasonable hardship.
Commutation of sentence applications are typically reviewed by other officials in addition to the head of state, and these officials may offer opinions or commentary on the issue. Typically, things like the prisoner's original crime and sentence, along with his or her behavior in prison, are taken into account when reviewing a request for a commuted sentence. Examiners may also consider whether or not the prisoner has shown genuine remorse and a desire to atone and improve when deciding whether or not to grant a commutation request.
On occasion, a commuted sentence can be a cause for controversy. In 2007, for example, American President George Bush commuted the sentence of white collar criminal Lewis "Scooter" Libby. This triggered an investigation by the US Congress, which was concerned that Mr. Bush had abused his executive privileges by commuting the prison sentence of a top administration official who was doing time as a direct consequences of actions he undertook while working for the president.