Rodney Holcombe L’17, the newly-appointed State Director of Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us, has been named one of City & State’s Albany 40 Under 40. He is also a 2020 Fellow in the New York City Chapter of New Leaders Council (NLC). The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Office of Communications spoke with Holcombe about his experience working towards decarceration at a time when mainstream interest in prison abolition is on the rise.
Office of Communications: Tell us about the work you’ve been doing since graduation.
Rodney Holcombe: I’m currently the New York State Director of Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us, a bipartisan organization that engages in both criminal justice and immigration reform across the country. My work focuses on criminal justice reform in New York, where I develop communications strategies, analyze legislation, and lobby for legislation to decarcerate jails and prisons across the state. My work includes developing and implementing a campaign to protect New York’s bail reforms from rollbacks and supporting the passage of legislation to release people who have served long sentences in New York state prisons.
Before coming to FWD.us, I was a staff attorney at Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in Oakland, CA. At DPA, I drafted legislation, model policies, and amicus briefs; engaged in policy advocacy; and testified before various legislative bodies in support of drug law reform generally and marijuana equity and reparative justice specifically. I worked with a coalition to draft and pass legislation that automated the process for obtaining record change relief in California and legislation to provide access to the cannabis industry to Black and Latinx Californians. In connection with this work, I have presented at local, national, and international conferences on repairing the harms of the failed drug war, criminal justice reform, and creating access for Black and Latinx people in the cannabis industry.
Office of Communications: Do you have a favorite moment from your time at FWD.us that you’d like to share?
Holcombe: One of my favorite moments at FWD.us so far was releasing a commercial that aired in New York City and Albany and made the case for protecting bail reform from rollbacks. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a script and creative concept, identify messengers, and build a distribution plan. This project gave me a chance to utilize my love for communication and storytelling in the service of legislative advocacy. I’ve learned that progressive change requires a multi-pronged strategy, including legislative advocacy and analysis, communications (rapid response, earned and paid media), coalition-building, litigation to protect victories, and lobbying. I always hoped to use my legal education as one of many assets to uplift and provide a voice to marginalized communities, and I’m so grateful to have found the opportunity to merge my different interests and skill sets.
Office of Communications: In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, we’ve seen decarceration and prison abolitionism creeping closer to becoming mainstream ideas in the U.S. Where do you see your work in relationship to these broader social movements?
Holcombe: My work directly aligns with the nation’s growing interest in decarceration. Whether expanding pretrial liberty for legally innocent New Yorkers or reducing the amount of time a person spends in prison, my work is deeply connected to the moment our country now finds itself in. My hope is that months after the protests, there is still substantial interest in reducing our country’s reliance on incarceration and that this momentum doesn’t fizzle out. I also hope to begin working to increase interest in transformative justice that will, in the place of carceral system, address harm when it arises. This work will require lots of ground-softening and public education, but it is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to end the harm that is incarceration.
Office of Communications: Did you have any particular experiences at Penn Law that inspired you to pursue the work you’re doing now?
Holcombe: My favorite course was “Documentaries and the Law” with William A. Schnader Professor of Law Regina Austin L’73. I came to Penn after spending four years learning how to tell stories as a journalism student at Howard University. I really appreciated the opportunity to revisit those skills and create a documentary titled A Dignified Death on the cumbersome process folks nearing the end of their lives in Pennsylvania prisons have to navigate in order to receive medical parole.
I also took courses in three of Penn’s other graduate schools, and I strongly recommend all students take opportunities to tap into the full range of their interests while in law school.
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