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Penn Law alumnus works to change records in the wake of sentencing reform

March 29, 2018

In 2016, the state of California passed Proposition 64, which legalized the possession, cultivation, sharing, and transport of marijuana for adults 21 and over. This new law impacted not only those facing new charges – it provided for the reduction of charges or sentences for people who were convicted of marijuana charges before the law was passed. These retroactive penalty reduction provisions were often overlookedPeople who were incarcerated for marijuana offenses that have been legalized or reduced in severity did not realize they could petition the courts to be released early. People who completed their sentences for marijuana offenses also did not know that they could petition to have their conviction dismissed and sealed if the activity is now legal, or reduced for offenses that are now less severely punished. A Penn Law graduate is making sure California residents become well-informed.

Rodney Holcombe L’17 is helping to organize large-scale free legal clinics to offer these services to people across California. With the support of a Penn Law postgraduate fellowship, he has been working as a legal fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance in Oakland, California. The Drug Policy Alliance is a national organization that promotes drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.

“In the wake of this significant sentencing reform, Rodney is helping people be free of lifetime, punitive collateral consequences that harm their well-being and their ability to earn a living,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean of Public Interest Programs and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “This is work Rodney knew he wanted to do from the moment he came to law school, and we are thrilled that a Penn Law postgraduate fellowship was able to help launch his career.”

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that short of 1 million people in the state have prior marijuana convictions or were serving time for marijuana convictions that can be reduced or cleared.

“This has the potential to permanently change lives and remedy the harms wrought by the failed drug war,” Holcombe said.

“As we know, people convicted of crimes are burdened with collateral consequences, which make obtaining a job, public housing, or supportive services extraordinarily difficult,” he added.

In California, 75 percent of collateral consequences last a lifetime for individuals with felony convictions, and over half of these affect a person’s ability to access employment opportunities. While Prop. 64 is arguably one of the largest sentencing reforms to date in the state, many people are unaware that the retroactive provisions to clean up a person’s record exist.

“It’s a fairly straightforward process for an attorney to fill out the paperwork and to help a person file an application with the court,” Holcombe explained, “but most people are unable to navigate it on their own, or even know who to go to for assistance.”

Without free legal clinics or the help of a public defender, people must pay a private attorney for these services, at the cost of several hundred dollars. Without the efforts of nonprofits or public defender offices with clean slate programs, relief is near impossible to obtain for most low-income individuals.

Holcombe and the Drug Policy Alliance are coordinating with other organizations and media to spread the word and to offer people an opportunity to change their records. So far, Holcombe helped organize a large legal clinic in Los Angeles, CA. The clinic provided post-conviction relief to over 150 Californians and offered access to vital resources and employers. He is currently coordinating with other organizations to host similar events in San Bernardino and San Juaquin Counties, both of which have large indigent populations and limited access to free legal services.

Holcombe is originally from Houston, Texas, and graduated from Howard University, where he studied journalism. While in college, he interned at NBC and the Huffington Post, experience that has been helpful to the outreach and public education efforts he’s currently doing. Since joining DPA, Holcombe has had numerous opportunities to speak about Prop. 64 and the drug war. He presented at the University of California, Davis, sat on a panel at Rice University, and was quoted in several news articles.

While at Penn Law, Holcombe found a community with the National Lawyers Guild and the Journal of Law and Social Change — organizations with members who are similarly interested in racial justice and social change.

“I’ve always been so impressed by DPA’s work, and am still in awe that I have the chance to contribute to it,” he said.

Holcombe’s postgraduate fellowship has led to him being hired full time as a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Penn Law is committed to supporting students as they launch careers in the public interest. The Law School offers postgraduate fellowships to financially support graduates who pursue work at public interest organizations, government agencies, and NGOs.