Editor’s Note: Earl Adams, Jr. is of Counsel with DLA Piper in Washington, DC and Baltimore. Prior to this position, Earl was Chief of Staff to the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. He has also served in several different positions of leadership within the BC Law Alumni Association, including his current position as Vice President of the Alumni Board. All of us at Impact are pleased to be able to host his guest blog post.
Before joining my current law firm, I had the honor of serving for five years in Maryland state government as chief of staff to the Lt. Governor, and one of the things I enjoyed most about my job was the knowledge that my efforts benefited more than a precious few. This feeling gave me a true sense of work satisfaction. Among the many things that I learned and got out of my BC Law experience was an appreciation of the maxim, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” So, when I decided to leave public service and return to private practice, I was, to say the least, concerned that I might not find the same contentment in my new job. Said more precisely, I was concerned that my work on behalf of individual clients would not be as rewarding. As a result, when I arrived at my firm, I actively sought out opportunities to find socially impactful pro bono work. One particular engagement caught my attention because of the potential to changes the lives of the people involved.
Since February, I have been helping federal inmates prepare petitions to reduce their prison sentences as a result of changes in federal sentencing guidelines. Specifically, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which among other things, eliminated the 100 to one ratio disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine for sentencing purposes. President Obama and the Justice Department then made the decision to review thousands of inmates’ sentences to determine whether they might be eligible for clemency. To facilitate the review, the Clemency Project was created. To be eligible, a petitioner must be a non-violent drug offender who has served at least 10 years of his or her sentence, and received a significant sentence under the old sentencing guidelines for their offense.
I was attracted to the opportunity because I worked on prison reform issues while in Maryland government. In my opinion, the fact that there was such an extreme disparity in sentencing depending upon whether an offense involved powder versus crack cocaine was just wrong. The reality is that there is no difference between the two substances and, consequently, they should be regarded as the same for sentencing purposes. In one of my cases, a 22 year old with no prior arrest record nor an allegation of violence in his underlying charge was sentenced to life in jail because he sold crack instead of powder cocaine. Had he been arrested with the same quantity of powder cocaine he would have been sentenced to roughly 10 to 15 years in prison. From a public policy perspective, such a result was not fair. Through a moral lens, the notion that this person is neither capable of redemption nor worthy of rehabilitation also is not consistent with how our criminal justice system should work.
One of my favorite classes at BC Law was Professor Bloom’s criminal procedure class. There, he taught us that procedure can be used to allow justice or to deny it. In this case, although the procedural rules for reviewing and processing petitions are long and cumbersome, they are helping these individuals find justice. In fact, the White House just announced the first group of commutations and thanks to the Clemency Project there will be more to come.
Before I go, let me be clear that I have several great paying clients who do a lot to improve their part of the world. I am just happy that I found the Clemency Project and now have another means by which to use my legal training to help the broader community and to correct an injustice.