After A Wrongful Conviction, This Black Man Earned A Law Degree. Now He’s Advocating For Criminal Justice Reform

Brittni Hudson

As a teenager, Jarrett Adams was wrongfully convicted and served 10 years in prison, even though he did not commit the crime. Since being released, Adams has earned his law degree and co-founded the nonprofit Life After Justice, fighting to ensure others don’t endure the same fate.

And with the approaching presidential election, Adams believes President Biden should prioritize wrongful convictions as part of his campaign’s criminal justice reform agenda.

Per a 2022 report, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” “Black people are 13.6% of the American population but 53% of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Judging from exonerations, innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.”

In addition, a Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) study “revealed that in two-thirds of overturned death row convictions, official misconduct, perjury or false accusations played a role in 70.7% of Black and 93.8% of Latino exonerees’ cases.”

A review of Biden’s record, extending back to his days in the Senate, shows that the President has been aware of this issue for decades. When the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was being considered in the mid-1990s, Biden “proposed several amendments, from stripping the restrictions from the bill entirely to applying them only to federal prisoners. Biden and other opponents of the bill made the now-prescient argument that without the amendments, the restrictions would make it nearly impossible for the federal courts to consider credible claims of innocence,” the Washington Post reports. However, Biden’s amendments would fail and President Bill Clinton ended up signing the bill into law.

Almost fifteen years later in 2020, Biden campaigned on pledging to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” Has the President lived up to his promise?

Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” states “[b]ecause we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”

However, as of yet, Biden has still not ended the death penalty, despite voicing opposition against its use, even though legal experts posit that by using the presidential powers, Biden could do so, “in a matter of minutes, with a few strokes of his pen.”

Biden did utilize his powers to grant clemency for the first time in 2022, issuing three pardons, one of which went “to the first Black Secret Service agent to work on a presidential detail, who had long maintained he had been wrongfully convicted.”

But once again, the president did not take more aggressive actions. During a conversation Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velasquez, a wrongfully convicted man, directly asked the president: “how can we create clear, uniform standards for clemency so that incarcerated people are motivated to change and know what they need to accomplish to show that they’re ready to return to their families and communities?” The president’s response: “you can’t set a standard for clemency. You can’t write a law saying, under these circumstances, and the chief executive authority to clemency like the governor did for you, or that I’ve just done for everyone who’s ever been convicted of the possession of marijuana and smoking marijuana. I can only do it in the federal prisons, for example.”

The bottom line is that Biden needs to do more on this issue. As Adams told ESSENCE, “Justice cannot be selective; it must be a universal promise fulfilled. We need real reform by addressing a system that allows wrongful incarcerations and post convictions hurdles that block exonerations with impunity. Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne, two men found not guilty of murder yet have still spent two decades in prison based on that crime, are prime examples of this injustice.”

“It’s time to not just talk about reform but to implement changes that ensure accountability for those responsible for wrongful imprisonment and allow innocence to trump any procedural barriers,” continued Adams.

“Granting clemency to individuals like Terrence and Ferrone is a crucial step in demonstrating a commitment to a fair and just system,” Adams added. “Let’s transform promises into actions and bring about the change our justice system so desperately and immediately needs.”

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