On Friday, July 10, political operative Roger Stone received a presidential commutation of his 40-month sentence for seven felony crimes. The White House’s official statement was “punctuated by the sort of inflammatory language and angry grievances characteristic of the president’s Twitter feed,” according to a New York Times story.
Two Republican senators had opposing views of the commutation. Utah’s Mitt Romney (a former presidential candidate himself) called it “unprecedented, historic corruption.”
Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) July 11, 2020
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the president’s chief apologists in the Senate (a title with many contenders), called the action “justified.”
In my view it would be justified if President @realDonaldTrump decided to commute Roger Stone's prison sentence.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 10, 2020
Mr. Stone is in his 70s and this was a non-violent, first-time offense.https://t.co/jbbGTucRpq
(Mr. Stone is not “in his 70s.” He is 67. And his felonies included witness tampering and lying to investigators—not exactly penny-ante stuff.)
But let’s put all that aside—tempting as it is to let it offend our sense of ethics and decency for the rest of time—and consider the word commute.
Have you ever wondered about the connection between commuting a prison sentence and commuting to work? Well, Charlie Haas has.
The commuting of Stone's sentence reminds me that the term "commuter" originated because streetcar riders' fares were "commuted" (discounted) when they bought weekly tickets. I mean, it reminded me of John Gotti and Juan Peron, but also the streetcar thing.— Charlie Haas (@Charlie_Haas) July 11, 2020
Now, Charlie is a comedic genius (as well as a friend of mine); he wrote the screenplays for Matinee and Gremlins 2 and published the very funny novel The Enthusiast, which I reviewed here. He’s a kidder, is Charlie, but it turns out he’s not kidding about the origin of commuter. (Or about the other stuff, alas.)
The Latin root of commute is mutare, “to change.” It shows up in several English words, including mutant, mutation, permutation, and immutable. (It is not related to mute, which comes to us from another Latin word, mutus, meaning silent or speechless.) Commute first appeared in the mid-1400s, when it meant “to change something into something else.” By the mid-1600s, that “something else” could be a punishment or burden—such as a prison sentence. And by the end of the 18th century commute could mean “to change one kind of payment into another.”
That’s where the “go-back-and-forth-to-work” sense of commute comes from. Around 1848, American railroads and streetcars began issuing “commutation tickets”—not get-out-of-jail-free passes but rather monthly or seasonal passes that combined “a number of payments into a single one.” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary.)
Monthly commutation ticket from the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, purchased on February 2, 1913, the day Grand Central Terminal opened. Via The Harlem Line.
The commutation of a prison sentence reduces its term but does not eliminate the conviction. Nor, as the Clemency.com site puts it, does it “imply that the person was innocent of the crime for which he or she was convicted, nor does it remove the ramifications of a criminal conviction, such as losing the right to vote or inability to hold elected office. … In short, a commutation does not make any change to the fact of conviction or its consequences, except for any reduction in sentence or fine as directed by the President.” In all these respects, a commutation differs from a presidential pardon.
For more about the history of presidential pardons and commutations, see this New York Times story. And if you’re wondering how your work commute will be altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the answer may be personal subway straps like the ones BART is selling for $5 each.