From the President: Turning the Page on 2020

Even though it was challenging in several ways, 2020 was a surprisingly strong year for NACDL.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

As 2021 is (finally!) upon us, it is a natural time to take stock of the past year and focus on the goals and opportunities that lie ahead.

For many of us, 2020 was the toughest and longest year of our lives. Almost all of us are eager to move on. But despite the many challenges of 2020, NACDL had a surprisingly strong year — one that even finished with a flourish.

The Full Disclosure Project has begun implementation of a police accountability database with the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. NACDL will partner with defender offices around the country to build out police accountability databases so that defense lawyers will have readily accessible Brady material at their fingertips to use against individual officers and units. It is our hope that the databases will result in fairer court proceedings while also encouraging law enforcement agencies to police themselves more effectively.

The Return to Freedom Project, which contains six distinct initiatives, worked overtime in 2020. The Return to Freedom Project includes the Federal COVID-19 Project; the Federal Trial Penalty Clemency Project; the D.C. Compassionate Release Project; the Virginia Redemption Project; the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project in New York; and the Jim Crow Juries: Unanimous Jury Project in Louisiana.

The Federal COVID-19 Project was created to help federal inmates seek compassionate release due to the impact of COVID-19. With the BOP failing to protect federal inmates from COVID-19, more than 15,000 federal inmates have contracted the virus. Working with federal defenders, our colleagues at FAMM, the Washington Lawyers Committee, and pro bono counsel, this project has screened more than 6,000 applicants, filed 1,000 compassionate release petitions, and won freedom for 174 petitioners, including 11 who had been serving life sentences. In total, the project won more than 800 years of sentence reductions.

The NACDL Federal Trial Penalty Clemency Project has submitted 23 clemency petitions to the White House for President Trump’s review. We are asking for clemency for these men and women who were excessively punished for exercising their right to trial. If President Trump does not take action, the project will renew the requests to the Biden administration.

Two applicants supported by the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project were granted sentence commutations in New York. Many more applicants await review by New York in 2021. We are also on the verge of launching a similar initiative in other states.

The Jim Crow Juries: Unanimous Jury Project was recently initiated to seek relief for the men and women who were convicted by non-unanimous juries in Louisiana.

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In addition to the Return to Freedom Project campaigns, NACDL launched an initiative to provide communications-related guidance and support to NACDL affiliates. The goal of this initiative is to increase the capacity of affiliates, especially those with limited resources, to promote criminal justice reform in their states. If your affiliate is interested in learning more about how NACDL may be able to assist, please contact us.

This is but a small sample of what NACDL achieved in 2020. With the economic terror that afflicted solo and small firm lawyers in March and April, smart money would have bet that we would have been forced to scale down on our initiatives. Instead, as you can see, we doubled up on them.

We were able to achieve so much in 2020 because of our great staff and executive director, all of our members who stuck with us in this challenging year, and our firm financial footing.

First, our staff and executive director seamlessly converted to working from home in March. They never lost sight of the needs of our members and the needs of our clients. As the Return to Freedom Project demonstrates, our staff saw and seized opportunities created by this virus to positively impact the lives of our clients.

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Second, you stuck with us when we most needed it. Due to the economic disruption in the spring, most voluntary bar associations lost a significant percentage of their members. Not NACDL. We actually grew our total membership by a few new members in the spring and summer. We owe our membership team — and you — a debt of gratitude for that.

There are many great reasons to be a member of NACDL. We provide value to our members in so many different ways. We provide the best CLE programs. Our listservs and The Champion keep us on the cutting edge for our clients. However, when times are really tough, like in 2020, I believe it is our community that is the most important reason to keep our memberships active.

Our community is different from any other bar group that I have seen. They shake hands; we hug. They politely chuckle; we have unrestrained belly laughs. They look for a practice tip; we seek to transform the criminal legal system. We have passion. We support each other. We are giving. We have a phenomenal community of advocates, and I am thrilled you valued it by renewing your memberships in 2020.

Third, we have a sound financial foundation that allowed us to weather the worst of the economic storm without being forced to furlough or lay off anyone. Our first-rate financial team deserves great credit. The NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice continued to raise funds in 2020 with more than 100 first-time donors. New grants were awarded, which resulted in adding several new staff members during the pandemic.

In sum, NACDL survived and thrived through the challenges of 2020.

In 2021, NACDL will continue to advance a full agenda in pursuit of justice. We will urge the Biden administration to follow through on its campaign promises to implement a Second Step Act, to renew the Clemency Project, and to end the federal death penalty. We will work with our affiliates so that more states will take the major, necessary steps to rectify the effects of overcriminalization and overincarceration. While we will undoubtedly face significant changes and challenges in 2021, the NACDL team will continue to keep its eyes on the prize.

As for our wonderful community, we will continue to make do by Zoom for the near future. We will continue to learn and share together by having a full slate of virtual CLE and Engage & Exchange meetings while we wait to be vaccinated. I hope we will be able to resume in-person meetings by midyear. I really hope to see you, hug you, and laugh with you at the Annual Meeting in July in Milwaukee.

About the Author

After spending 15 years as a public defender and nonprofit lawyer, Chris Adams opened his private practice in 2007. He devotes half of his practice to defending men and women facing the death penalty in federal and state courts throughout the country. He also defends people and businesses facing allegations or investigations in federal and state courts.

Christopher W. Adams (NACDL Member)
Adams & Bischoff, LLC
Charleston, South Carolina