Civil Litigator Breaks Ground with Criminal Clemency: President Obama commutes sentence of non-violent drug offender

Editor’s note: The following story was written by John Finger, PR/Communications Coordinator for McNees Wallace & Nurick LLP.

Imagine the difficulties an attorney would face if she were representing a client in federal prison she had never met and trying to earn clemency for them from the President of the United States. Throw in the fact that the attorney specializes in civil law and had to work her way through the tricks and pitfalls of criminal law in a pro bono case for a client in Louisiana –all that while working from her office in Lancaster, Pa.

That was the task facing McNees Wallace & Nurick associate Kiandra Bair as she became the first member of the National Bar Association to file a successful petition for clemency with President Barack Obama, earning a shortened sentence for her client, Jason D. Rakel, on October 6.

“I’ve always had a heart for people because people had a heart for me,” Bair says.

She was randomly assigned the case through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of attorneys from the National Bar Association, the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that assist in finding candidates for consideration under the Clemency Initiative, a joint effort by the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to help qualifying defendants get their sentences commuted or reduced.

The Clemency Project 2014 represents non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to criminal organizations, gangs or cartels and those who do not have a significant criminal history, have served at least 10 years of their sentence and have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Rakel, of Shreveport, Louisiana, was sentenced to 240 months imprisonment and 10 years of supervised release on February 22, 2006, for a nonviolent drug conviction. Bair won clemency for her client by citing new sentencing guidelines on the case. As part of the commutation, Rakel’s sentence will expire on October 6, 2018, upon enrollment in a residential drug treatment at home. Interestingly, Bair has never met her client in person.

“In the 10 months we worked together,” she says, “I would talk to him on the phone – I would get weekly calls from the federal prison – and we’d talk a lot by letter. Being a millennial, we’re not great at sending letters to people. But that was an aspect that was actually good. He was very polite and had a Southern charm to him. He was very respectful, so who knows what the future holds. Maybe one day we’ll get to meet each other.”

In 2006, Rakel received a sentencing enhancement, which landed him a substantially longer federal prison sentence than that of a co-conspirator. Because of the changes in sentencing, Rakel sought reduced time, and that’s when he landed on Bair’s radar.

“I believe Mr. Rakel vulnerably yet rewardingly put himself in the position to seek legal assistance through the Clemency Project 2014,” Bair says. “Through this program, he was afforded the opportunity to receive pro bono representation, which ultimately spared him from serving several years remaining of his 240-month sentence.”

According to Bair, the Young Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association — the country’s largest African-American bar association — had contacted its members about participating in the Clemency Project program. After consulting with her firm mentor at McNees Wallace & Nurick, Rachel Hadrick, Bair decided to go for it.

She received Rakel’s case in December 2015. That’s when things got tough.

“It’s not always easy when you’re coming into a federal prison as a new person in this case and trying to obtain records and knowing where to go to get the information – that was one of the impediments,” Bair says. “I’m not versed in criminal law, so knowing the law and calculating criminal sentencing guidelines is a messy area that a lot of people have trouble wrapping their head around. So it was enlightening, and I’m happy the research I did paid off in the end.”

Through this research, Bair determined that Rakel had received a sentencing enhancement in 2006 that would no longer be permitted under today’s reformed sentencing guidelines. She submitted a 76-page petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney. From there, the office engaged in its own internal process for screening petitions. Petitions that survive that process are then passed on to President Obama for further screening.

President Obama has granted clemency to 944 people, according to a report from the Department of Justice, out of more than 10,000 petitions that have been submitted. Rakel’s was the first successful request for clemency ever achieved with the help of a National Bar Association member.

As a first-generation college student, Bair is a product of the southeast section of Lancaster’s inner city. She graduated from J.P. McCaskey High School and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she served on the University Student Judiciary – Student Honor Council. She earned her law degree from the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia. In law school, she served as a member of the Black Law Students Association

After graduation, Bair served as an assistant city solicitor in the tax unit for the City of Philadelphia Law Department. Now she is a member of McNees’ Litigation and Orphans’ Court Litigation groups. Bair’s pro bono legal work includes volunteering with the Family Court Project, Domestic Violence Unit in Philadelphia. In Lancaster, she works with the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation, a nonprofit focused on providing young students with a pathway to college.

“Opportunity is huge for me, as I wouldn’t be where I am today without the opportunities I’ve been afforded,” Bair says. “I am a first-generation college graduate from the inner city here in Lancaster and have seen firsthand how the system affects those without advocates.

“I’m working with students and mentoring them and trying to get them to college. Education is huge, and that’s where the change happens.”

Published .