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In Victory for ’13 Alumna, President Obama Commutes Client’s Sentence

'13 alumna Kiandra Bair

October 10, 2016

Alumna Kiandra Bair, ’13, scored a huge victory for a pro bono client when President Barack Obama commuted the man’s 20-year-to-life sentence.

Bair’s client, Jason Rakel of Shreveport, La., was among 102 individuals whose sentences Obama commuted on Oct. 6 to offer second chances to men and women serving excessive sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws.

A civil litigation and Orphan’s Court litigation associate at McNees Wallace & Nurick in Lancaster, Pa., Bair volunteered with the Clemency Project 2014, which matched her with Rakel, who had served 10 years of a 20-year-to-life sentence imposed after he was arrested while buying drugs.

The Clemency Project 2014 aids low-level offenders who lack a significant criminal history and are not affiliated with criminal organizations, gangs or cartels and have served at least 10 years, Bair explained.

Rakel and an associate were arrested buying drugs from a dealer.  Police arrested all three, Bair said, but Rakel – who was buying drugs for his own use – received a harsher sentence than the dealer, who had a large supply of contraband in his home, or the associate, who led him to the dealer.  

“It was extremely disproportionate to the sentences his co-conspirators received,” Bair said, noting that her client did have prior arrests for drug possession.

In December, Bair began reviewing the record and determined that Rakel had been subject to a mandatory minimum sentence as well as a sentencing enhancement that would no longer be applicable today.  Furthermore, Bair said, since the Supreme Court’s United States v. Booker ruling, judges have more leeway to impose sentences shorter than the calculated range defined in guidelines.

Bair compiled a 76-page petition that she sent to the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.  With the commutation, Rakel will be released in 2018, provided that he completes a drug re-entry program.

Although Obama has commuted 774 sentences – more than the previous 11 presidents combined – Bair’s was one of 12,000 to 15,000 petitions submitted.

“That our petition was picked and individually reviewed out of thousands of petitions issued is pretty significant,” Bair said, noting that colleagues at McNees have cheered her victory.

As an African-American attorney representing a white client, Bair finds special satisfaction in the outcome.   

“In this day and age, it makes me feel awesome,” Bair said. “There was a time when we weren’t allowed to play in this role. To know that I can be of assistance to anyone is pretty cool.”