The U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to pardon people, wiping their slates clean. Part of that power is the power to commute a sentence. In a commutation, the prison sentence is shortened, but the underlying conviction is not forgiven.
President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 non-violent drug offenders, including 46 this week – a record for modern presidents. And the trend is likely to continue.
A Minnesota law professor is taking the lead on getting as many petitions for commutations as possible in the presidential pipeline.
“There's a sense you've been pushing against a rock for a long time, and it doesn't move,” Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, told Fox 9, “and then all of sudden you put your shoulder into it and you feel it give way a little bit.”
Osler, a former prosecutor turned law professor and clemency advocate, believes President Obama could commute the sentences of a thousand inmates before his term ends. It’s why he and an NYU law professor are setting up an unprecedented, “pop-up law office.”
The Clemency Resource Center (CRC) will include seven paid attorneys; they’ll try to get as many petitions into the pipeline as possible before the CRC dissolves in a year.
“We're going to get good cases, analyze them, and get them into the pipeline so there's time for the president to analyze them before he leaves office,” Osler said.
Osler also runs a federal commutations clinic at UST Law, supervising law students filing petitions on behalf of inmates.
“I was a federal prosecutor. I was one of the people who put people into prison for long terms,” Osler said, “I believe in punishment. I believe in incapacitation of people who are dangerous. But we didn't solve the narcotics problem by sweeping up low wage labor.”
Osler says the tough, and often unequal, sentencing guides caused the federal prison population to swell from 25,000 inmates in 1980 to over 200,000 currently – over half of them drug offenders.
“I realized there were two things that ran together. One was that we had too many drug defendants doing long terms in prison. The other was that the pardon power had fallen into disuse.”
Osler believes, in Obama, he has found a president that is more receptive to taking another look at non-violent drug offenders currently serving time. He points to the personal letters Obama wrote to each inmate whose sentence he commuted.
“It's Shakespearean really, that you have the most powerful person in the world reaching out to the least powerful person in the world, saying I'm counting on you.”
Asked what he would say to a commuted inmate, Osler replied, “I want to go to a prison. I want to stand with someone’s family. I want to see that door open and that person walk out. I think we’ll have more than one of those moments. And what will I say, ‘welcome back.’”
For a Q & A on commutations, head to Ted Haller’s Facebook page, where he’ll also answer any additional questions: here
Note: Ted Haller participated in Osler’s clinic at UST, and still has a case pending from when he was in law school.