LANSING, Mich. – After serving more than twenty-five years behind bars for convictions including selling cannabis, Michael Thompson may get to see the new year dawn as a free man.
In 1994, Thompson, now 68, sold weed to an undercover informant in Michigan. For that and a related felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm charge, he was sentenced to a state prison term of forty to sixty years and would not have been eligible for parole until 2038. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer commuted his sentence and the sentences of three other nonviolent offenders December 22.
Thompson was on the list of individuals Last Prisoner Project considers unjustly incarcerated as a result of America’s drug war. The organization lobbied for his release.
“We applaud Governor Whitmer’s decision to commute the sentence of Michael Thompson,” the organization declared in a prepared statement. “Were it not for the commutation, Thompson would have died behind bars in a state now bringing in millions in cannabis tax revenues. Despite receiving a de-facto life sentence for the same thing others are profiting from legally across Michigan, Thompson’s spirit was never defeated. He has—and will continue to—serve as a powerful advocate for the thousands of other Americans currently incarcerated due to our unjust, discriminatory, and ineffective policy of marijuana prohibition.”
Thompson expressed gratitude for those who supported him while the state parole board and the governor’s office considered his case.
“I’m thankful to everybody that was involved, and I’m thankful to Governor Whitmer for granting my freedom,” he said. “It’s been a hard journey, but I’m just thankful that no one gave up on me. I want to use my time to help those who can’t help themselves and work for criminal justice reform.”
Whitmer, a Democrat, has made criminal justice reform, especially with regard to cannabis, one of her priorities. In October, she signed bipartisan “clean slate” legislation making it easier for people convicted of some nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies to have their records expunged.
“As a former prosecutor, I recognize how critical it is to take steps toward a smarter and more equitable justice system,” she said. “Over the past two years, we’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle to make tremendous progress to give people a second chance, from reforming civil asset forfeiture to becoming a national leader on expungement.
“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,” she added. “We still have a lot of work to do, but today is a step in the right direction, and I’m confident Michigan can continue to be a national leader in smart justice.”
Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, who is Black, also is committed to reforming a criminal justice system that often penalizes people of color more harshly than White citizens who committed the same crime.
“For far too long, the so-called ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ eras of criminal justice have led to fractured families and broken communities that make our state less safe, particularly for people of color in Michigan,” he said. “Our administration has spent the past two years delivering bipartisan solutions to improve the criminal justice system in a way that levels the playing field for individuals who have committed nonviolent offenses. We will continue to find ways to provide second chances for everyone, which will make our families, neighborhoods, and communities safer and stronger.”
The others who received clemency December 22 are:
- Lawrence Cadroy, sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for drug possession. He served twenty-one years and would have been eligible for release in 2030.
- Lorenzo Garrett, sentenced in 1999 to twenty-nine to 170 years for selling drugs. He served twenty-two years and would have been eligible for release in 2027.
- Larry McGhee, sentenced in 2004 to twenty to thirty years for selling drugs. He served sixteen years and would have been eligible for release in 2024.
A commutation reduces an individual’s sentence to a specified term but does not nullify the underlying conviction. All four men whose sentences Whitmer commuted became eligible for immediate parole consideration and subsequent release consistent with state law.