Spring 2021

Advocacy: Initiative Changes the Lives of the Incarcerated

Prisoner release, record-clearing, and reentry are the three main initiatives of the Last Prisoner Project, which takes a personal approach to addressing the unjust incarceration of nonviolent cannabis offenders.

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Richard DeLisi was 40 years old in 1989 when he was sentenced to 90 years in prison for a nonviolent cannabis offense in Florida. DeLisi spent 32 years in prison, and during that time his parents, his wife, and one of his sons died.

Through the efforts of pro bono lawyers partnering with the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), DeLisi was released from South Bay Correctional Facility in December 2020—in time to spend Christmas at home with his family. He had been the longest-serving prisoner for a nonviolent cannabis offense in the country.

“Our work focuses on direct service relief for nonviolent offenders, including clemency and help with reentry,” explains Natalie Papillion, director of strategic initiatives at LPP. “This is something that not a lot of other cannabis organizations are doing. We will not be satisfied until all 40,000 incarcerated prisoners are released.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some modifications to LPP’s release program. To avoid overcrowding and exposure to the coronavirus, the organization is advocating for the use of compassionate release under the First Step Act. By pairing prisoners with lawyers to file briefs on their behalf, LPP is hoping to release more prisoners during this difficult time.

After prisoners are released, LPP continues to be by their side. The organization helps connect people to counseling, food services, and available community resources. “Our goal is to help this population get on their feet and on their way toward leading a healthy, productive life,” Papillion adds.

Systemic Injustice Evident in Cannabis Arrests
Although the tide is shifting in the United States toward legalization of cannabis, the number of cannabis-related arrests remains high. According to recently released statistics compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, more people were arrested for cannabis offenses in 2019 than for all violent crimes combined, including rape, homicide, aggravated assault, and armed robbery. Furthermore, 92% of these arrests were for simple possession.

Signs of systemic racism are also evident in recent arrest data. Papillion points to another study, conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, that found people of color are almost four times as likely as white people to be arrested for cannabis-related issues—despite the fact that white people are more likely to use cannabis. “At the very beginning of the War on Drugs, cannabis was used as a political cudgel to demonize certain populations,” Papillion says. “It turned out to be an effective way to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.”

These newly released statistics make the work of LPP that much more pressing. They also made the news about clemencies from the new Biden administration especially gratifying. In its first day in office, the administration granted clemency to 12 people—four of whom are LPP constituents—imprisoned for nonviolent cannabis issues. Many were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

This White House executive order is a result of the work of LPP and other like-minded organizations. In a statement released by Sarah Gersten, LPP’s executive director and general counsel, she noted that these pardons and commutations were in line with the recent legalization of cannabis in many states. “These actions,” she says, “are further evidence of the overwhelming bipartisan support for broad-based cannabis policy reforms.”

Robust Agenda for the Future
LPP has ambitious plans for the future. After implementing direct services in in California, Colorado, and Hawaii and making a difference on the policy front in several states, including Illinois, Ohio, New York, and Connecticut, LPP has set its sights on several other states with a more conservative bent. After its success with DeLisi in Florida, the organization plans to continue its efforts there, as well as in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Michigan.

The organization is also casting a wide net online, getting the word out about the work it does. “We’ve found that state governments are very helpful,” Papillion says. “They have worked with us to proactively identify who may be eligible for clemency, and they have data to support their recommendations.”

As a small nonprofit, LPP also spends a great deal of time fund-raising. The team has found that companies, including cannabis companies, are ready to step up and make donations for a cause they believe in. In addition, LPP wouldn’t have been as successful without the pro bono work of lawyers.

Celebrities, too, lend a hand in helping LPP gain recognition and funding. Jim Belushi, Melissa Etheridge, and Montel Williams are among the organization’s most ardent supporters. Although LPP doesn’t endorse candidates, the organization is excited about the new Democratic administration in the White House and the party’s new majority in the Senate. Its celebrity advocates will now have a platform in Washington to use to promote LPP and its cause.

“We’re really fortunate to have such a wide circle of people in our orbit,” Papillion says. “But among our most effective advocates are constituents who have been released. They have a strong desire to pay back, and they use their stories to advocate for others. They have been our most effective storytellers and are paving the way for more changes in the criminal justice arena.”

— Marilyn Fenichel is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.


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