Federal Commutation News

President Barack Obama used the pardon power to free hundreds of narcotics prisoners serving harsh terms. It was a principled use of mercy, a striking vision of the most powerful person on Earth recognizing the humanity of the least powerful. Now, President Donald Trump appears to be considering an abuse of that same power by helping some of the most powerful people on Earth, including himself. If he does try to stymie the investigation into collusion with Russia through clemency, Trump will harm both his legacy and the moral force of the pardon power itself.

 

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In August 2016, Rudy Martinez received clemency from President Obama. He was one of 1,714 people who had their sentences commuted during Obama’s second term. Like Rudy, nearly all of them were non-violent drug offenders. In those two-and-a-half decades of incarceration, he often joked that he would be free when the Cubs won the World Series. It turned out he was right.

 

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My school in downtown Minneapolis is built around a stunning atrium, a four-story glass-walled showcase looking out over a broad lawn and the Target corporate headquarters. Twice a year, new citizens of the United States are sworn in there as the sun streams in.

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“You’re just watching the ship sink and you’re in the lifeboat. And there’s not enough room for everyone,” said Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor and former federal prosecutor who runs a clemency clinic for law students. “These last few weeks — it’s deep joy and it’s deep tragedy.”

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The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant pardons and commute sentences — decisions that no future administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency, Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation’s misguided drug war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.

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A coalition of more than 50 scholars and advocates are calling on President Obama to expand clemency efforts in the final weeks of his administration — including considering granting clemency to entire groups of people without case-by-case review.

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Mark Osler's journey has led him from a career as a fierce prosecutor, to now arguing for clemency and leniency in sentencing. He also works to abolish the death penalty. We talk about this transformation, as well as his new book, Prosecuting Jesus.

In our conversation, Osler talks about being a prosecutor in an era of "mandatory minimum sentences." He would watch defense attorneys make impassioned arguments, even though the words would not lessen the sentence that would be imposed. Despite their seeming futility, Osler credits those passionate speeches with changing his own mind about the criminal justice system, and his role in it.

We go to the heart of the importance of that "faithful futility" in this compelling and fascinating interview.

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This election cycle has been a cruel one. The presidential candidates share one thing, at least: the instinct to attack their opponent in the most cutting way possible. Our electorate is largely following suit. Many Trump supporters genuinely believe Hillary Clinton is evil. An equal number of Clinton supporters cannot imagine why anyone would vote for Trump, a man they despise.

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We are in the heart of cross country season for high school and college athletes. Watching a race last week reminded me of this crucial point in the Obama presidency. Just as runners accelerate to the finish, knowing that moving up in those last few hundred yards may be the difference between a victory for their team or a loss, President Obama will finish his clemency project either with a flourish—thus ensuring his legacy for restoring the lost tool of the pardon power—or with a limp, coloring his record on criminal justice. If he fails to finish strong, it will not just be his legacy that suffers, but the hopes of prisoners with good cases and the sense of fairness one hopes for when justice and mercy meet the levers of power.

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Drawing on his training as a federal prosecutor and professor of law, Mark Osler and a group of friends have been staging the trial of Jesus around the country over the last several years.
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The scene: a briefing room at the White House. Date: March 31, 2016.

The audience: a diverse group of administration officials, attorneys, human rights activists and former prisoners who had received presidential grants of clemency.

The day before, President Barack Obama had announced another 61 such grants, bringing the total of prisoners whose sentences he had commuted during his presidency to 248. That same day, however, The Washington Post had run an article critical of the administration for not doing enough to act on the thousands of petitions for clemency from federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences. The article prominently quoted a law professor – an expert on clemency – calling the grants nothing to celebrate when more than 9,000 petitions from eligible prisoners remained pending.

The source quoted: Professor Mark Osler of the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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The work of the Federal Commutations clinic and Professor Osler is covered by Fox 9 News.

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Law professor Mark Osler told a federal inmate serving a life sentence that he would be a free man by New Years.

The news came by the White House and the Department of Justice, which announced Tuesday President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of 111 federal inmates.

Osler holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Before joining the law faculty, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit, during which time he prosecuted innumerable drug cases, enforcing the draconian sentencing laws he now rails against from academia.

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Prof. Osler talks to NPR about President Obama's clemency policy and his own federal commutations work.

Osler, the law professor and lawyer for inmates seeking mercy, said he thinks the president believes in the effort. Obama, he said, visited a prison and went to lunch with people who won clemency. The question for the next five months is whether the White House can finish the job, even if it angers some Republicans in Congress, Osler added.

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Earlier this month, President Obama made history by commuting the sentences of 214 people in federal prisons. That action, one of the largest exercises of presidential clemency powers since Gerald R. Ford granted pardons to Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters facing prison in 1974, has been hailed by the White House as a sign of Obama’s commitment to clemency.

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Prof. Mark Osler continues with other thought leaders to push the Obama administration to move faster on clemency. Initiatives to turn back the overreach of sentencing that led to mass incarceration are chronicled in an Atlantic Monthly piece yesterday.
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When President Barack Obama granted clemency to 214 federal inmates last week, University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Mark Osler and several of his former students finally saw the fruits of their labor—some more than five years in the making. On Obama’s list were the names of six men whose freedom they helped make possible.

Through their work as clinical student attorneys in the Federal Commutations Clinic at St. Thomas Law, alumni Marc Spooner ’12, Ashley Bennett ‘13, Derek Hansen ‘13, Eric Hylok ’15 and Jamie Waldon ‘15 directly impacted the lives of three men whose sentences were commuted Aug. 3. An additional three men were helped by Waldon through his work with the Clemency Resource Center at New York University, a pro bono law office that Osler co-founded, where Waldon works alongside Hylok and four other fellows.

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On June 3, 2016, Robert Sleepers received the phone call he had thought about for the past 12 years. Sentenced in June 2004 to a mandatory minimum of 20 years for his role in a non-violent, relatively low-level conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Sleepers admittedly broke the law, but his punishment far exceeded his crime.

For more than 12 years, Sleepers had limited contact with the tight-knit family that supported him throughout his incarceration. He and his family members relied on letters, rare visits, and telephone calls to maintain their tight family bond. On holidays his family members would gather around the phone in one central location to allow each of them to speak with the father and brother they had all missed over the past decade. However, the June 2016 phone call brought news that would change future holidays for Sleepers and his family.

Read more in Newsroom.

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The work of the NYU Clemency Project and Prof. Mark Osler written about in the Harvard Gazette.

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