The University of Minnesota Law School’s Clemency Project advocates for inmates serving disproportionately long prison sentences. Inaugurated in 2014 in response to President Obama’s clemency initiative for non-violent and low-level federal inmates, it has had unprecedented success. Throughout President Obama’s initiative, 15 students drafted clemency petitions on behalf of 35 inmates, by far the largest contribution in terms of number of student applications by any law school in the United States. These applications resulted in 14 commutations (a 15th was granted compassionate release in an application also supported by the Project). The then-acting U.S. Pardon Attorney, Robert Zauzmer, called in person on January 17, 2017, to advise the Law School of the final four successful applicants.
The Project’s clemency advocacy work is at the heart of an innovative and integrated program aimed at connecting law students in a hands-on way to the human realities of mass incarceration. In the spring of 2018, the Project assisted local Minnesota defense lawyers to gain durational or dispositional departures in four sentencing cases. In the summer of 2018 and in partnership with King & Spalding, it also secured the unprecedented reduction to time-served of a life sentence following 18 months of litigation in DC’s federal and local courts on behalf of the Project’s first clemency client.
The Project’s motto is one client at a time - but with a view to zeroing in and showcasing the kinds of advocacy that can make a difference for other similarly-situated inmates and offenders. The Project’s work includes:
- Clemency Applications on behalf of federal and state inmates;
- Compassionate Release Applications for inmates who are elderly, of limited capacity or facing unexpected family obligations;
- “Second Look” Litigation identifying and developing novel legal routes to a judicial “second look” at the integrity of the sentence an inmate is serving;
- Sentencing Advocacy Practicum exploring cutting-edge sentencing advocacy through hands-on representation of clients in a unique interdisciplinary law class;
- Clemency Advocacy for Defendants and Inmates promoting expanded use of clemency powers, development of “second look” procedures, and sophisticated mitigation advocacy.