How to Get a Sentence Commuted in California
(Penal Code 4800 PC, Executive Clemency)

smiling 40-year old man holding up an open pair of handcuffs
A California governor's commutation (executive clemency) can reduce an inmate's sentence or make the inmate eligible for early parole]

Inmates currently serving a jail or prison sentence in California can petition to have the governor commute their sentence. A commutation is a type of clemency that does not change or reverse a finding of guilt. But it reduces or eliminates a prisoner's sentence.

A governor's commutation can also make a prisoner immediately eligible for parole. California's Board of Parole Hearings will then determine whether the prisoner is ready for release.1

Who is eligible for a commutation?

Anyone convicted of a crime in California is eligible for a commutation (except government officials who were impeached).2

Note that California's governor cannot commute a sentence if the conviction was for:

  • Violation of the law of another state or country,
  • Violation of a federal offense, or
  • A military crime.

People twice convicted of a felony

If the applicant was convicted of two or more felonies, the governor may not commute his or her sentence unless a majority of justices of the California Supreme Court consent.3

But the governor can grant a commutation on his/her own to someone convicted of any number of misdemeanors or a single felony.

Whether or not the consent of the court is needed, the inmate must submit an application for Executive Clemency to the governor in order to receive a commutation.

To help you better understand how to get a sentence for a California conviction commuted, our California criminal defense lawyers discuss, below:

elderly woman holding onto the bars of her prison cell
An inmate's age and conduct while in prison are factors that can help California's governor decide whether to grant a commutation (executive clemency)]

1. What is a commutation?

A commutation is a reduction or elimination of a prisoner's sentence. It does not reverse a finding of guilt or restore civil rights lost as the result of a conviction.

Someone with a conviction may be able to get some or all civil rights restored by:

Benefits of a commutation

Even though a commutation does not restore civil rights, it can reduce a sentence or allow a prisoner to become immediately eligible for parole.

Thus it is used primarily to:

  • Get an inmate out of prison or jail immediately,
  • Get a parole hearing before the inmate would otherwise be eligible, or
  • Commute a death sentence to a life sentence.

It can also reduce or eliminate a fine or another court-ordered penalty.

2. Who is eligible to get a sentence commuted in California?

Anyone convicted of a California criminal offense can have a sentence commuted by the governor (except people who were impeached). 4

Even people sentenced to death or life imprisonment can have their sentences commuted by the governor.

But California's governor cannot commute a sentence if the conviction was for:

  • An offense under the criminal laws of another state or country,
  • A violation of United States (federal) law, or
  • A military offense.

3. Factors that go into commutation of a sentence

There are no set factors required for commuting a sentence in California. The California constitution confers absolute authority on the governor to grant one.

The only limitation is that it is subject to the approval of a majority of the Californa Supreme Court in cases of people twice (or more) convicted of a felony.5

Factors the governor will often consider include:

  • The severity of the prisoner's offense(s),
  • Harm to victims,
  • The prisoner's age at the time of the crime(s),
  • The prisoner's age at the time of application for commutation,
  • The number of years the prisoner has served,
  • The prisoner's conduct while in jail or prison,
  • Education obtained while incarcerated,
  • Evidence of remorse for the crime(s),
  • Evidence of victim restitution or attempts to make things right,
  • Public opinion,
  • The opinion of victims and/or the District Attorney,
  • Whether the prisoner was subject to “intimate partner battering” (as discussed in Section 5, below),
  • Whether the applicant poses a threat to the community,
  • Whether the prisoner will have a job and housing upon release, and
  • Any other factors that might be relevant.6
stack of books on a table in a caged-off area
Inmates who get an education while in prison often have an easier time getting their sentences commuted in California

4. How to apply for commutation of a sentence in California

To obtain a commutation, an applicant must:

  1. Notify the district attorney of the county or counties where the applicant was convicted;7 and
  2. Complete and mail a notarized application to the governor.

Both forms can be downloaded from Application for Executive Clemency on the California governor's website.

Let's take a closer look at each of these steps.

4.1. Notifying the district attorney

Before applying for a commutation, the applicant must serve notice to the district attorney. The notice should be sent to the D.A. of each county in which the applicant was convicted.

A form for this notice is provided along with the downloadable Application for Executive Clemency. This form must be used as it contains a field for the D.A. to acknowledge receipt of the notice.

Notice must be sent before applying for clemency

The notice must be sent to the district attorney before submitting the Application for Executive Clemency to the governor.

The applicant will need to swear -- by a signed, notarized affidavit -- that the D.A. was so notified. The affidavit must be submitted to the governor along with the application for commutation.

The affidavit must be signed in front of a notary. A list of notaries can be found on the notary public listing on the California Secretary of State's webpage.

The D.A. will return the acknowledgment of receipt directly to the governor's office.

How much notice does the D.A. require?

The D.A. must receive at least 10 days notice before the governor may act upon an application for executive clemency.8

An exception is if:

  • There is imminent danger of the death of the person convicted or imprisoned, or
  • The inmate's term of imprisonment is within 10 days of its expiration.9

Although it is not necessary, we recommend sending the notice by certified mail or another method that provides proof of receipt.

What does the D.A. do upon being notified?

The district attorney may submit a written recommendation to the governor for or against commutation of sentence.10

The D.A. will also make reasonable efforts to notify the victim(s) of the crime related to the application. Such victim(s) and/or their families may also submit a recommendation to the governor.11

4.2. Applying for executive clemency

The application for a commutation is not complicated. But the applicant will need to provide:

  • A list of all conviction(s) and circumstances,
  • The reason the applicant is seeking a commutation,
  • A statement of why the applicant believes a commutation should be granted, and
  • A full statement of any compensation paid to any person for assisting with getting a commutation.

Application must be notarized

The application must be notarized. It should then be sent via regular or certified mail to:

Governor's Office
Attn: Legal Affairs
State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814 

The application can be notarized at the same time as the affidavit of notice to the D.A.

5. What happens after the governor receives an application for clemency?

The governor is not required to grant, or even to consider, an application for commutation of a sentence.

If the governor decides to act, he or she will usually refer the application to the Board of Parole Hearings.

The Board will then conduct an investigation and recommend to the governor whether the request should be granted.12

What does the Board of Parole hearings do during its investigation?

During its investigation, the Board may take testimony and examine witnesses under oath. 13

It may also review a summarized statement of the facts of the inmate's case. This statement will be provided by the court in which the inmate was convicted. 14

The governor may also submit the application to law enforcement or other agencies for investigation or recommendation.

Note that the governor is not obligated to seek the review of the Parole Board or any other agency.

Official photo of the California Supreme Justices in their robes
People convicted of two or more felonies may not receive a commutation unless approved by a majority of justices of the California Supreme Court

Meeting of the Parole Board

If the governor requests a review, the Parole Board will conduct an investigation. When the investigation is complete, the case will be presented to the Executive Board at a public meeting.  

The applicant will be notified of when the Board will be considering his or her case. He or she will be offered the opportunity to provide additional information (though he or she will not attend the meeting).

Members of the public (such as victims and their families) will have the opportunity to speak for up to five (5) minutes each.15

After the meeting, the Board will send its investigation report and recommendation to the Governor. The Board will also notify the applicant of the result of the meeting.

Referral to the California Supreme Court

If the applicant has two or more felony convictions, the governor may not commute a sentence without the consent of a majority of the justices of the California Supreme Court.16

Thus if the governor is inclined to grant the application in such a case, he or she must refer the application to the court.

But the governor is not obligated to seek the court's consent and may decline or ignore the application.

If referred to the court, the governor's application for a recommendation is treated as a court proceeding.

In order for the commutation to be granted, four or more justices must vote in favor of clemency. The Chief Justice will notify the governor in writing of the court's recommendation.

6. How does “intimate partner battering” affect an application for clemency?

California law allows the Parole Board to consider whether an inmate was subject to “intimate partner battering and its effects.” These are defined as:

“evidence of the nature and effects of physical, emotional, or mental abuse upon the beliefs, perceptions, or behavior of victims of domestic violence if it appears the criminal behavior was the result of that victimization.”17

The legal definition of an “intimate partner”

For purposes of a commutation, an “intimate partner” is defined as a current or former:

  • Spouse,
  • Rgistered domestic partner,
  • Cohabitant (live-in partner),
  • Fiancé(e)
  • Boyfriend/girlfriend, or
  • Parent of the applicant's child.18

Reasons why an applicant may be considered “battered” include that he or she was the victim of a crime under California domestic violence laws:

man making fist while woman cowers on floor in background
Inmates who were victims of “intimate partner battering” may be able to get clemency from California's governor

7. How much does it cost to apply for a commutation?

There is no fee to apply for commutation of a sentence in California.

There may be attorney's fees if the applicant hires a lawyer to assist with getting a California commutation.

8. How easy is it to get a sentence commuted in California?

Commutation of a sentence is a rare form of clemency.19 It is usually granted only where it is apparent that someone was guilty of a crime, but the sentence was too harsh, typically because of:

  • The prisoner's young age at the time the offense was committed,
  • Evidence of intimate partner battering or other abuse, or
  • Laws that were too harsh at the time of sentencing.

9. How long does a commutation take?

As there is no requirement that a governor even consider an application for clemency, it is impossible to state how long the process will take.

10. What happens if my application for a commutation is granted?

Once an application for a commutation is granted, the prison and/or parole board, as applicable, will begin implementing the new sentence.

The application and disposition will be filed with the California Secretary of State and reported to the California Legislature. They then become a matter of public record.

Certain details (such as new address) will be redacted before the information is made public.20

Updating of criminal record

The governor's office will notify the California Department of Justice that the inmate's sentence has been commuted. The DOJ will then notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

These agencies will update their records to show that the sentence for the conviction has been commuted.

11. Examples of sentences that have been commuted in California

Here are some examples of commutations approved by Governor Jerry Brown in 2017:21

Second-degree murder -- eligible for parole

An 18-year old was convicted of second-degree murder (Penal Code 187) after his accomplice killed someone during an armed robbery.

While behind bars, the prisoner earned a high school diploma and trained to be a paralegal. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan then offered him a job and housing and the governor made him eligible for parole.

Life sentence for murder -- eligible for parole

A woman was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life after her abusive pimp robbed a man and stabbed him to death in a motel room.

While in prison, the woman helped care for terminally ill inmates. She was made eligible for parole early due to her "limited role" in the murder, her past abuse and her work inside prison.

Attempted murder – sentenced reduced

A 17-year old was sentenced to 22 years in prison for attempted murder after he shot a man at a nightclub.

While in prison, he dropped out of his gang. He earned a high school diploma and three associate degrees. He participated in numerous prison programs and became a literacy tutor.

The governor reduced his sentence to nine (9) years.

First-degree murder – eligible for parole

A woman and her boyfriend kidnapped and robbed a shopper. The boyfriend then fatally shot the victim.

The woman was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.

While she was in prison, 7,000 people signed a petition supporting her release. She had a job and housing waiting. The governor made her eligible for parole.

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Legal references:

  1. See e.g., KPCC, Gov. Brown commutes 9 lengthy prison sentences, August 18, 2017.
  2. California Constitution Article V, Section 8(a): “Subject to application procedures provided by statute, the Governor, on conditions the Governor deems proper, may grant a reprieve, pardon, and commutation, after sentence, except in case of impeachment. The Governor shall report to the Legislature each reprieve, pardon, and commutation granted, stating the pertinent facts and the reasons for granting it. The Governor may not grant a pardon or commutation to a person twice convicted of a felony except on recommendation of the Supreme Court, 4 judges concurring.”
  3. Same. See also Penal Code 4802: “In the case of a person twice convicted of felony, the application for pardon or commutation of sentence shall be made directly to the Governor, who shall transmit all papers and documents relied upon in support of and in opposition to the application to the Board of Parole Hearings.”
  4. California constitution Article V, Section 8(a), endnote 2.
  5. Same. See also Penal Code 4800 PC: “The general authority to grant reprieves, pardons and commutations of sentence is conferred upon the Governor by Section 8 of Article V of the Constitution of the State of California.”
  6. See, e.g., Governor Brown Grants Executive Clemency (list of of pardons and commutations granted by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2017).

    See also Penal Code 4801(a) and (b):

    “(a) The Board of Parole Hearings may report to the Governor, from time to time, the names of any and all persons imprisoned in any state prison who, in its judgment, ought to have a commutation of sentence or be pardoned and set at liberty on account of good conduct, or unusual term of sentence, or any other cause, including evidence of intimate partner battering and its effects. For purposes of this section, “intimate partner battering and its effects” may include evidence of the nature and effects of physical, emotional, or mental abuse upon the beliefs, perceptions, or behavior of victims of domestic violence if it appears the criminal behavior was the result of that victimization.

    (b) (1) The board, in reviewing a prisoner's suitability for parole pursuant to Section 3041.5, shall give great weight to any information or evidence that, at the time of the commission of the crime, the prisoner had experienced intimate partner battering, but was convicted of an offense that occurred prior to August 29, 1996. The board shall state on the record the information or evidence that it considered pursuant to this subdivision, and the reasons for the parole decision. The board shall annually report to the Legislature and the Governor on the cases the board considered pursuant to this subdivision during the previous year, including the board's decisions and the specific and detailed findings of its investigations of these cases.”

  7. Penal Code 4805:

    “(a) At least 10 days before the Governor acts upon an application for a commutation of sentence, written notice of the intention to apply therefor, signed by the person applying, shall be served upon the district attorney of the county where the conviction was had, and proof, by affidavit, of the service shall be presented to the Governor.

    (b) The district attorney may submit a written recommendation to the Governor for or against commutation of sentence.

    (c) The district attorney shall make reasonable efforts to notify the victim or victims of the crime or crimes related to the application and the victims' families who may also submit a recommendation to the Governor for or against commutation of sentence.

  8. Penal Code 4805(a), endnote 7.
  9. Penal Code 4806.  “The provisions of Sections 4804 and 4805 are not applicable:

    (a) When there is imminent danger of the death of the person convicted or imprisoned.

    (b) When the term of imprisonment of the applicant is within 10 days of its expiration.

  10. Penal Code 4805(b), endnote 7.
  11. Penal Code 4805(c), endnote 7.
  12. Penal Code 4812: “Upon request of the Governor, the Board of Parole Hearings shall investigate and report on all applications for reprieves, pardons, and commutation of sentence and shall make such recommendations to the Governor with reference thereto as to it may seem advisable. To that end the board shall examine and consider all applications so referred and all transcripts of judicial proceedings and all affidavits or other documents submitted in connection therewith, and shall have power to employ assistants and take testimony and to examine witnesses under oath and to do any and all things necessary to make a full and complete investigation of and concerning all applications referred to it. Members of the board and its administrative officer are, and each of them is, hereby authorized to administer oaths.”

    See also Penal Code 4813: “In the case of applications of persons twice convicted of a felony, the Board of Parole Hearings, after investigation, shall transmit its written recommendation upon such application to the Governor, together with all papers filed in connection with the application.”

  13. Same.
  14. Penal Code 4803: “When an application is made to the Governor for pardon or commutation of sentence, or when an application has been referred to the Board of Parole Hearings, the Governor or the board may require the judge of the court before which the conviction was had, or the district attorney by whom the action was prosecuted, to furnish the Governor or the board, without delay, with a summarized statement of the facts proved on the trial, and of any other facts having reference to the propriety of granting or refusing said application, together with his or her recommendation for or against the granting of the same and his or her reason for such recommendation.”
  15. See, e.g., agenda for March 20, 2018 meeting of the Parole Board.
  16. See endnotes 2 and 3.
  17. Penal Code 4801(a) and (b), endnote 6.
  18. See, e.g., Penal Code 273.5(b).
  19. See endnote 1.
  20. Penal Code 4807:

    “(a) At the beginning of every regular session of the Legislature, the Governor shall file a written report with the Legislature that shall include each application that was granted for each case of reprieve, pardon, or commutation by the Governor, or his or her predecessor in office, during the immediately preceding regular session of the Legislature, stating the name of the person convicted, the crime of which the person was convicted, the sentence and its date, the date of the reprieve, pardon, or commutation, and the reason for granting the same. The report shall be submitted in compliance with Section 9795 of the Government Code.

    (b) Notwithstanding any other law, the written report filed with the Legislature pursuant to subdivision (a) shall be available to the public.”

  21. See endnote 1.

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