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Last Prisoner Project Receives Justice Rights Award

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National non-profit, dedicated to cannabis and criminal legal reform, Last Prisoner Project, (LPP), has been awarded the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Champion of Justice Rights Restoration Award at the 2023 NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice (NFCJ) Redemption Gala in Washington, DC. 

The Last Prisoner Project was founded in 2019 out of the belief that no one should remain incarcerated for cannabis offenses.

The organisation has brought together a group of justice-impacted individuals, policy and education experts, and leaders in the worlds of criminal justice and drug policy reform to work to end the fundamental injustice that is America’s policy of cannabis prohibition, and to free the tens of thousands of currently incarcerated individuals targeted by America’s unjust War on Drugs policies.

Champion of Justice Awards are bestowed upon those individuals who – through legislative, journalistic, philanthropic, or humanitarian pursuits – have staunchly preserved or defended the constitutional rights of American citizens and have endeavored to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime.

Accepting the award for LPP were Sarah Gersten, Executive Director and General Counsel and Donte West, Advocacy Associate.

In her acceptance speech, Gersten stated: “The Last Prisoner Project was born out of the notion that some of our laws, and namely those designed to service the war on drugs, were not designed to ensure public safety and public health, but instead to disenfranchise marginalized communities, specifically people of colour.

“To further that injustice, today jurisdictions are legalizing and regulating industries around cannabis and psychedelics and many stand to profit, particularly wealthy white individuals, while people that have experienced criminalization for this are still sitting behind bars and suffering the collateral consequences of these offenses.

“I am immensely proud of the progress LPP has made these last four years and that is because with this massive injustice we have a massive opportunity to leverage legalization, to leverage drug policy reform, to enact broad criminal justice measures, broad retroactive relief measures to resentence people automatically, and provide automatic record clearance. That is something that we are seeing with cannabis that could be a blueprint for broader offenses. We are building a model for retroactive relief that can span across all the injustices within our criminal legal system.

“I am so thankful to NACDL for partnering with us on the Cannabis Justice Initiative to help free people still incarcerated. I actually wore my comic book shoes tonight because I believe those of you in this room, those fighting to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs, to fight for those who so often have no one else fighting for them, are superheroes.

“Nobody embodies that more than those who have experienced being marginalized and criminalized and then have come out to fight for the freedom for those still left inside.”

In 2021, NACDL and the Last Prisoner Project established the Cannabis Justice Initiative, which focuses on bringing much-needed relief to individuals whose lives continue to be negatively impacted by cannabis criminalisation.

The Cannabis Justice Initiative is focused on facilitating clemency, compassionate release, expungement, and broad policy reform on the local, state, tribal, and federal level, including efforts to recruit, train, and support volunteer attorneys to assist individuals seeking clemency and compassionate release as well as providing infrastructural support for local groups assisting on expungement of those suffering continued punishment for past cannabis convictions.

In addition, LPP’s prisoner support initiatives aim to improve the lives of incarcerated constituents by providing them with financial and emotional support during their time behind bars.

LPP’s reentry services are focused on ensuring constituents have the tools and resources they need to successfully rebuild their lives. To accomplish this, LPP offers formerly incarcerated constituents financial and educational resources to support them throughout their reentry journeys.

LPP’s policy team provides nonpartisan, evidence-based technical assistance to jurisdictions working to advance cannabis laws that provide retroactive relief, including legislative provisions that allow for the expansive and standardised expungement of cannabis-related criminal records.

West stated: “In 2017, I got sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for a pound of marijuana in the state of Kansas. Right before my trial I found out my lawyer had not read my case for health reasons and filed a motion for a continuance, which the judge denied.

“I was eventually sentenced for the pound of marijuana. While incarcerated, I would see these lifers going to the law library and I’d ask them where they are going, and they said we are trying to go home. So, I felt like if I applied that same energy, I might have the opportunity to get released.

“During my time I studied law books, went on Lexus Nexus, and filed a habeas corpus motion with the court. At the same time, I wrote to 125 State Representatives and 40 Senators. Four wrote me back, and one came to see me. A lawyer reached out after he read the 26-page motion I filed and told me I might have a chance to go home. Soon after, I received a letter that told me the District Attorney agreed with my motion and overturned my conviction. After three years, I was released.

“The crazy part is that after I was released, they still wanted to try my case. They offered me felony time served so I said I would go back to a jury trial. I asked to speak with the District Attorney, which my lawyer told me defendants don’t typically do but he could make the request. I told the DA my story, that if I was sent back, I wouldn’t be able to vote, I wouldn’t find a job, that I would be raising my two young brothers alone in addition to all of it. Once I left, I received a call ten minutes after telling me my case was dismissed. I have been out a little over two and a half years now and I am so grateful to Sarah and the Last Prisoner Project and to be here with them.

“I will end on this: all of you here are lawyers or you know lawyers, the greatest gift you can give anybody is freedom. I am a testimony to that. Thank you for this honour.”

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