Kelli Caron couldn't help but cry after she persuaded Minnesota's Board of Pardons to commute her sentence, making her the first person in nearly three decades to have that happen while still in prison.
"I just couldn't believe it," she said.
But that joy — delivered last year via unanimous vote by the governor, attorney general and chief justice — soon faded as an unrelated, concurrent federal drug sentence in a meth conspiracy case from North Dakota sent her farther away from her family to a prison in Alabama.
Now, the 38-year-old from Little Canada is making one more plea: that the Biden administration send her home for good, arguing that recent federal sentencing law changes have rendered her original sentence overly long.
Caron is testing Democratic President Joe Biden's emerging philosophy on the executive branch's power to forgive. Biden is so far focusing on drug inmates already sent home to serve their time under the 2020 pandemic relief bill.
Caron is hoping that her story of redemption, plans to pursue a career in treating addiction and fears of spending the last of her childbearing years behind bars can merit reconsideration. "I never had children while I was in my addiction just because of the simple fact that I wanted to be a good mom," Caron told the Star Tribune in correspondence from federal prison in Aliceville, Ala. "That was probably the one smart decision I made … but I actually regret it now."
Caron's case is one of nearly 17,000 clemency applications awaiting review by the federal government — more than at any point in history.
Expanding the federal government's clemency efforts has attracted support from both Republicans and Democrats. Former GOP President Donald Trump signed last year's legislation that sent thousands of nonviolent drug offenders home to serve their time under home confinement, and Biden is now encouraging them to quickly file petitions for clemency. Yet it is unclear what the federal government is doing beyond urging those people to add their petitions to an already massive pile.
"I'd characterize it as negligent," said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who runs a clemency clinic at the University of St. Thomas law school. "There has been some talk of dealing with the CARES Act people, but that talk has pretty much been, 'We'll send them through the existing broken process.' "
Osler criticized the federal clemency process as overly bureaucratic — requiring numerous layers of review and managed by the same department that prosecuted the people now challenging their cases. For Caron's case to have a fair hearing, Osler said, "the entire system has to change."
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
"Ms. Caron has demonstrated sincere efforts toward rehabilitation and redemption. Her case — a nonviolent offense that caused her to spend many years in prison — is an example of the importance of reexamining prison sentences and offering opportunities for clemency," said Gov. Tim Walz, one of the three Board of Pardons votes for commuting Caron's sentence.
JaneAnne Murray, an attorney and University of Minnesota law professor who filed Caron's petition, is also advocating for cases like Caron's to be remedied through the courts. She said federal judges nationwide managed thousands of petitions for compassionate release during the pandemic and have released some 3,600 prisoners since last year. "Clemency could be one way, but because of the number of those pending petitions, it is going to take some serious resolve, effort and resources to get through all of those and get it to the point where the president can do large-scale clemency," Murray said. "At the end of the day, clemency may not be the answer. But the answer is a systematic second-look procedure that permits prisoners to return to court and have prosecutors and judges revisit their sentences."
Caron's drug convictions were the culmination of a methamphetamine habit she picked up as a teenager, which later worsened in an abusive relationship. Her story became emblematic of the path many women with addiction take in becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system.
Caron's meth use, at its height, frayed her relationship with her family. But both she and her mother, Kristine Richard, now credit her journey out of addiction with saving their bond. Richard said she wanted Caron locked up at the worst point of her addiction "because I just didn't want to see her die."
"But when they did lock her up, she was looking at life," Richard said.
During her addiction, Caron picked up multiple state drug possession charges. That allowed federal prosecutors in North Dakota to seek an enhanced penalty carrying mandatory life imprisonment if convicted at trial in the 2015 drug distribution case.
Murray is an outspoken critic of what defense attorneys call the "trial penalty," where prosecutors have filed charges carrying steep prison terms in a bid to push defendants to plead guilty instead of seeking a jury trial.
Caron indeed pleaded guilty to avoid risking a lifetime sentence. Murray — with the help of law student Ingrid Hofeldt — now argues that Caron's past drug possession convictions could no longer be used to calculate such a lengthy term were she to be sentenced today under new guidelines passed in 2018. They say that the nearly 6½ years Caron has spent in prison is almost twice as long as she may have been ordered to serve today.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota declined to comment.
While incarcerated in Shakopee, Caron worked full-time, including as a manager in the prison's textile shop, and volunteered to train dogs for people with disabilities. Her mom keeps photos of Caron hugging a black lab from that program at the family's Little Canada home.
"Since I got locked up … I have found myself again," Caron said. "I try to make the best out of the horrible situation I got myself into."
"When I talk to her, I know it's my daughter now," Richard said. "I got my daughter back."
While in Shakopee, Caron started taking online courses through the private Ohio-based Ashland University, majoring in communications and minoring in criminal justice and business management. She remains two classes short of her degree but has not been able to continue classes since being transferred to federal prison.
She now spends most of her days reading books and completing crossword puzzles her mother mails her, unable to have much recreation other than the 20 minutes allowed each day.
Caron lost three grandparents, her father and an aunt while in prison, unable to attend any of their funerals. She learned of her aunt's death when she saw her photo in a display of domestic violence victims killed by their abusers. She hasn't hugged a loved one since the start of COVID in March 2020.
Richard remodeled the family's basement into a makeshift apartment for their daughter to live in while she gets back on her feet. The family installed a garden outside what would be the door to Caron's living space, and she and her mother plan to grow flowers and vegetables together.
"I tell her every day I do not want her to get broken," Richard said. "I want her to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Absent clemency from the Biden administration, or a new systemic approach to second chances through the federal courts, the earliest they could live together again would be June 2026.
"I have a lot of making up to do when I get out. I really just want to go to college, get a good job, start a family of my own, and live a good life," Caron said. "I have already missed out on so much and I am scared that I am missing out on precious time I should be spending with my family."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755