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Mark Osler

Professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law

  • Education
  • J.D. Yale Law School
    B.A. College of William and Mary

  • Expertise
  • Criminal Law and Procedure, Death Penalty, Federal Commutations, Clemency, Prisoner Rights

Professor Mark Osler's work advocates for sentencing and clemency policies rooted in principles of human dignity. In 2016 and 2019, the graduating class chose him as Professor of the Year, in 2015 he won the Dean's Award for Outstanding Scholarship, and in 2013 he received the Outstanding Teaching award.

Osler's writing on clemency, sentencing and narcotics policy has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and in law journals at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Georgetown, Ohio State, UNC, William and Mary and Rutgers. His University of Chicago Law Review article (with Rachel Barkow) was highlighted in a lead editorial in The New York Times, in which the Times' Editorial Board expressly embraced Barkow and Osler's argument for clemency reform. He is also the sole author of a new casebook, Contemporary Criminal Law (West, 2018).

A former federal prosecutor, he played a role in striking down the mandatory 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines by winning the case of Spears v. United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Court ruling that judges could categorically reject that ratio. He has testified as an expert before the United States Sentencing Commission and the United States House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Osler's 2009 book Jesus on Death Row (Abingdon Press) critiqued the American death penalty through the lens of Jesus' trial. His second book, Prosecuting Jesus (Westminster/John Knox, 2016) is a memoir of performing the Trial of Jesus in 11 states. He currently serves as the Ruthie Mattox Chair of Preaching at First Covenant Church-Minneapolis, and held the Byrd Preaching Chair at St. Martin's-by-the-Lake Episcopal Church in 2012. In 2011, he founded the first law school clinic specializing in federal commutations, and in 2015 he co-founded (with Rachel Barkow) the Clemency Resource Center, a one-year pop-up law firm that prepared clemency petitions. Between the two projects, over 100 people have been freed from prison.

The character of Professor Joe Fisher in the Samuel Goldwyn film American Violet was based on Osler, and in 2014 he was the subject of profiles in Rolling Stone and The American Prospect. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School.


Contemporary Criminal Law (West, 2018).

Memoirs of Christ's Prosecutor (Book: Westminster/John Knox, 2016).


Clemency as the Soul of the Constitution, 34 Journal of Law & Politics 31 (2019). Short of the Mountaintop: Race Neutrality, Criminal Law, and the Jericho Road Ahead, 49 Univ. of Memphis Law Review 77 (2019). Designed to Fail: The President's Deference to the Department of Justice in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform (with Rachel Barkow) 59 William & Mary Law Review 387 (2017).

Prosecutors and Victims: Why Wrongful Convictions Matter (with Jeanne Bishop), 105 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 101 (2016).

Re-Creating Clemency Under Pressure (with Rachel Barkow), 82 University of Chicago Law Review 1 (2015).

Forfeitures in a New Market-Reality Narcotics Policy, 52 Harvard Journal on Legislation 221 (2015).

Treating Drug Crimes as White-Collar Crimes (with Thea Johnson), 61 Wayne State Law Review 1 (2015).

1986: AIDS, Crack, and C. Everett Koop, 66 Rutgers Law Review 851 (2014).

Narcotics Prosecutors as Problem Solvers, 1 Stanford Journal of Criminal Law and Policy 1 (2014).


“The Clemency Process is Broken. Trump Can Fix it” (with Rachel Barkow & Mark Holden), The Atlantic, January 15, 2019. “Presidential Pardons for Friends are Legal-but They're Wrong,” Washington Post, April 20, 2018.

Obama's Clemency Problem, New York Times, April 1, 2016.

The President's Idle Executive Power: Pardoning (with Rachel Barkow), Washington Post, November 26, 2014.

We Need Al Capone Drug Laws, New York Times, May 4, 2014.