August 5, 2020
LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a letter today to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressing her support for the commutation of the remainder of Michael Thompson’s decades-long prison sentence for offenses related to his sale of marijuana.
Thompson, 69, of Flint was sentenced in 1996 to serve between 42 and 60 years in prison for offenses related to selling roughly 3 pounds of marijuana to an undercover police informant. Marijuana is now a legal substance for recreational use in Michigan.
Thompson was also sentenced under the Michigan Habitual Offender Law as he had weapons in his home at the time of his arrest, which he wasn’t supposed to have due to his prior convictions of non-violent low-level drug felonies in the early 1980s.
Nessel requests in her letter that Thompson be released from prison as soon as possible.
“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. Given that recreational and medicinal marijuana is now legal in Michigan, allowing Mr. Thompson to continue to serve this very draconian sentence is even more offensive and unreasonable.”
Nessel argues that Thompson would have been released from prison by March 2011 if he was charged and convicted of only the marijuana offenses. However, the felon-in-possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony convictions are what led to his decades-long prison term. While technically legal then, Nessel notes that the sentence imposed on Thompson is a product of a different time in Michigan history, when “draconian drug laws were prevalent” and preceding the adoption of legislative sentencing guidelines.
The Attorney General goes on to write that under today’s guidelines, Thompson’s offense would be sentenced to a maximum of four years’ imprisonment, or a maximum of eight years if charged as a second drug offense.
In her letter, Nessel also points out that current state law requires sentences to be reviewed for reasonableness under the “principle of proportionality,” which requires sentences imposed by a trial court to be proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the offense and the offender. There are multiple reasons why the sentence given to Thompson is disproportionate, including:
The Attorney General has no authority to commute a sentence but, like anyone else, can provide comment to the Michigan Parole Board and the Governor, who has the ultimate authority to approve commutations.
A commutation is the reduction of a prisoner’s sentence to a specified term such that the Michigan Parole Board is given the jurisdiction and authority to determine an individual's parole eligibility. The parole board does an initial review of the commutation application to determine if it has merit. If the application has merit, the parole board conducts a public hearing.
The public hearing is attended by one or more parole board members and an assistant attorney general (AAG), who represents the Attorney General and the public. The AAG questions the prisoner about her or his crime, previous crimes and other details. The parole board member questions the prisoner about his or her institutional history and parole plan, among other things. Public testimony both in support and in opposition to the potential commutation is also taken. The AAG may make a statement regarding the Attorney General’s position regarding the potential commutation.
Following the public hearing, the parole board meets in an executive session of all 10 members and votes for its recommendation to the Governor. The recommendation is for “merit” or “no merit” as to the commutation application. This is a recommendation only as the ultimate decision is the Governor’s, pursuant to the state constitution. The Governor then issues a commutation decision to the applicant.