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State law school clemency projects help shorten drug sentences

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Clemency projects rooted at Minnesota law schools have recently helped a handful of inmates get their sentences shortened by President Obama. Attorneys working on the projects expect more clemencies to be announced as the end of Obama's term approaches.

In 2014, Obama ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to prioritize clemency applications from inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes who would receive shorter sentences under current laws.

The latest batch of 214 inmates to have sentences commuted by the president was announced on Wednesday, at least 67 of whom were sentenced to serve life in prison.

One inmate, Bernard Gibson, Sr., a client of the clemency program at the University of Minnesota Law School, had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 for possessing cocaine and heroin with the intent to distribute. He had his life sentence commuted by the president to 260 months —  almost 22 years — imprisonment.

Professor JaneAnne Murray, who runs the university's clemency program with her students, said Gibson's case is especially gratifying because he was one of the first clients to sign up when the program started in 2014.

When Murray told Gibson he'd be released, she said his reaction was muted, a result of decades of incarceration.  

"For me it's incredibly emotional, I've worked so closely digging into their cases in the past two years along with the students," Murray said. "It's incredible just to say to a client that you're going to be going home, and I'm the one trying to choke back the tears in the moment."

University of St. Thomas Professor Mark Osler has also led efforts to get inmates granted clemency.

Osler said in an email Thursday that three clients of his program received clemency in this round. Minneapolis native Keith Ray had his 263-month sentence for intent to distribute crack commuted to August of 2018. 

Another client from the University of Minnesota's clemency program, Teresa Griffin, had her sentence commuted in June.

Murray is on the Clemency 2014 steering committee, which is seeking to recruit pro bono attorneys to represent clients in their clemency cases.

"There are thousands of inmates who have fallen through these cracks, the victims of punitive policies from the '80s and the '90s who would not benefit from all the retroactive changes that have been made in the ensuing decades," Murray said.

Obama has granted 562 commutations, which the White House said in a statement is more than any president in a century. But about 35,000 inmates have applied for early release.

"It's never going to be able to address the massive need that's there," Murray said. "That's why we need Congress to step in and we need more systematic efforts to ensure that these individuals aren't forgotten."