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Advocacy and the Sentencing Project


The war on drugs has been a hot topic in America for about as long as most people can remember. Whatever the stance, everyone has heard about it.

3L Zack Eckles is one of the people trying to address those failed policies, and spent his summer in Washington, D.C. working with the Sentencing Project.

The Sentencing Project is an organization that works toward a fair criminal system, promotes reforms in sentencing policy, and fights racial disparities in the carceral system.

Eckles has always been interested in social justice issues. In fact, he worked as a field canvasser for groups such as Working American and Ohio Citizen Action in the year between the end of his undergraduate education and the start of law school. During that time, he realized he would be able to make more of an impact if he attended law school. But his interest in the "war on drugs," and drug policies in America, started long before his enrollment at Cincinnati Law.

Every summer during his undergraduate years, Eckles would return home to Morrow, Ohio, and help a family friend do hay baling and sacking.

“One summer when I came home I found out he had developed a crack cocaine addiction, and he was really struggling,” Eckles remembered. “I spent a lot of time with him that summer, and it really opened my eyes to the failure of the war on drugs, and how those policies can make a situation worse rather than better.”

Although he initially felt upset with what he perceived were unfair policies concerning the “war on drugs,” after conducting his own research he realized the entire criminal justice system has issues that need to be addressed. After his first year of law school, he interned with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, an organization that does similar work to the Sentencing Project.

During his internship at the Sentencing Project, Eckles researched state statutes regarding life sentencing and life without parole, discovering when states passed those statutes - not every state has one - and what the motivation behind it was.

In addition to his research, he wrote for the Rights and Justice News Center and attended meetings and conference calls with staff members who did more of the advocacy work, a side he has enjoyed seeing.

He was able to sit on conference calls with state policy advocate Nicole Porter. Porter works to bring multiple groups across state lines together to pass criminal justice reform bills. Eckles has also observed Jeremy Hale, a federal policy advocate, who does similar work. Hale’s meetings have consisted of several federal organizations who devise a plan on how to get policy reforms completed. The time spent with Porter and Hale has given him the opportunity to see reform work at two different levels, a unique experience.

“It’s interesting to talk about how politics of the coalition work, and how a lot of these organizations are allies but they also compete for funding,” said Eckles. “It was great to see them work together and get a better understanding of the dynamics at work when they work together.”

Although there have been fewer differences between his work experience in DC and Cincinnati than he expected, this externship provided Eckels with a clearer image of the path he’d like to take after law school. Eventually, he would like to be in a position similar to Porter or Hale’s: being an advocate. Until then, this experience has helped refocus him for the school year.

“I don’t like the fact that in school you’re not really working for something other than yourself,” said Eckles. “But actually my experiences have served as a reminder of why I’m going to school.”

Author: Michelle Flanagan, ‘18, Communication Intern