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Commutation means the substitution of one thing for another. 

Some common uses of the term “commutation” in a legal sense include: 

  1. In criminal law, commutation refers to reducing or lessening a sentence or punishment resulting from a criminal conviction, which can be done by the governor of a state (for state convictions) or president of the United States (for federal convictions). For example, a death sentence may be commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment. Some grounds for commutation of a sentence are good behavior, illness, old age, or when the sentence is unreasonably harsh in comparison to other similar cases. Commutation is different from pardon in that pardon nullifies the conviction and forgives the individual for the crime whereas commutation is a reduction of a punishment. 
  2. Commutation in the context of worker’s compensation or other civil matters, as explained in cases such as this one from New Jersey, means replacement of one form of payment for another. It means to substitute a single payment for several periodic payments or to settle on a lump sum payment. 

[Last updated in June of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]