The governor of Michigan has granted clemency to four currently incarcerated people who are serving time for non-violent drug offenses, including one 69-year-old man whose lengthy sentence for marijuana has been widely criticized by advocates and the state’s attorney general.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) office announced the commutations on Tuesday, and the men could see a release as early as January.
Three of the four people who are receiving clemency are incarcerated over cocaine-related convictions, with decades-long sentences. Michael Thompson, meanwhile, faced a 42-60 year sentence for selling three pounds of cannabis to an undercover police officer and for firearms charges.
“These commutations offer a second chance to four individuals who have accepted responsibility and paid their debts to society and whose sentences span decades for non-violent offenses,” Whitmer said in a press release. “We still have a lot of work to do, but today is a step in the right direction, and I’m confident that Michigan can continue to be a national leader in smart justice.”
After Thompson contracted coronavirus in prison earlier this year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) strongly recommended that the governor use her authority to facilitate a commutation.
The fact that Michigan legalized marijuana for adult use in 2018 underscores the need for restorative justice, she wrote to the governor.
“A decades-long sentence like that imposed on Mr. Thompson is usually reserved for second-degree murder convictions or for particularly heinous rape cases involving multiple aggravated factors,” Nessel said. “Sentences of this length for selling marijuana are simply unheard of, even when accompanied by firearms offenses.”
The attorney general also noted that under today’s criminal statutes, Thompson’s offense would be punishable by a maximum of four years in prison, or eight if he was convicted of a second drug crime.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D) celebrated Whitmer’s move on Tuesday.
“The ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ eras have fractured countless families and left far too many communities broken,” he said. “This is just one more step to make Michigan a leader in reform.”
BREAKING: @GovWhitmer has issued her first clemency grants.
The ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ eras have fractured countless families and left far too many communities broken.
This is just one more step to make Michigan a leader in reform.https://t.co/Z36PZN6S2n
— Garlin Gilchrist II (@LtGovGilchrist) December 22, 2020
The governor signed legislation in October providing opportunities for those with low-level cannabis convictions to have their records expunged.
The marijuana community has been a strong advocate for Thompson’s release, with multiple high-profile voices calling for his release.
Soon, Michael will get to hug his grandkids for the first time as a free man.
— Montel Williams (@Montel_Williams) December 22, 2020
Thank you, @GovWhitmer ! I am so grateful Michael Thompson & these other men will get a second chance. You and @LtGovGilchrist are bright lights in a dark time! || Gov. Whitmer commutes sentences of 4 Michigan prisoners https://t.co/NO9TckG7QL
— Van Jones (@VanJones68) December 22, 2020
Whitmer’s latest action, though it only applies to a handful of cases, is part of a trend among Democratic governors who are increasingly taking steps to resolve criminal justice disparities causes by cannabis prohibition.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) pardoned thousands of people who had previously been convicted of cannabis possession in December 2019 prior to the first legal marijuana sales in the state. He said in October that more cannabis clemency was coming.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) used a recently enacted law to grant nearly 3,000 pardons for people convicted of possession one ounce of less of marijuana.
In June, more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level marijuana possession in Nevada were automatically pardoned under a resolution from the governor and Board of Pardons Commissioners.
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has also issued pardons for cannabis offenses.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights and drug policy reform groups recently called on the governor of New Jersey to systematically issue pardons for people with marijuana convictions to supplement the state’s voter-approved move to legalize cannabis.