Being convicted of a felony can come with a lot of pain, stress, and paperwork . . . and vocabulary. If you’re writing or editing the next great procedural drama, using the correct legal terminology is important for making the story realistic.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million convicts. Many of them will not serve out their entire prison sentences behind bars because that same system provides processes that allow authorities to judge cases individually, showing clemency to model inmates and lessening the strain on the prison system.
The following processes come into play only after a person has been convicted in court, and none of them lets a criminal off scot-free*:
A convicted criminal who is put on probation might not see prison at all, but they certainly will see their freedoms limited. Probation means that all or part of a prison sentence is suspended, on condition of good behavior, for someone who has not been incarcerated yet. Probation can be granted only by a judge.
A prison inmate may be granted parole before a sentence has been completed. This means they get to rejoin the general population on condition of good behavior — parole officers are charged with making sure parolees “play nice.” Parole is granted by the executive branch of government, in this case a parole board, and only the parole board can rescind it.
A pardon forgives a felon of their crime and releases them from any further punishment. However, it does not automatically expunge the conviction from one’s record. A full pardon restores any rights the prisoner might have forfeited after conviction — like the right to vote or to own firearms — but not all pardons do so, and some include conditional requirements.
In all states, some combination of the executive and legislative branches can grant pardons for state and local crimes. The president can grant pardons only for federal crimes.
The same people who can grant pardons can also commute sentences. Commutation is a lessening of a punishment; it neither forgives the crime nor reinstates any lost civil liberties.
Whenever a trip to the electric chair is featured in a movie or TV show, the condemned often hopes for “a call from the governor.” What they’re hoping for is that the governor, at the very last second, will commute the death penalty to life in prison.
A more common and less glamorous use of commutation is to lessen the prison sentences of people who were convicted at a time when sentencing guidelines were much harsher than the present time. In 2015, for example, President Obama commuted the sentences — making them shorter — of a number of nonviolent drug offenders who had been subject to long sentences during earlier eras.
May these words only ever appear in the stories on which you work and never in your own life story.
*Incidentally, scot-free has nothing to do with being Scottish. A scot, sceot, or shot (depending on your source) is a Middle English word for “tax.” If someone got off scot-free, it meant they either weren’t required to pay the tax or managed to avoid doing so, and its meaning evolved from there.