Legal resistance:
Jarrett Adams helps others wrongfully convicted


by Susheela Bhat-Harkins

When Jarrett Adams was 17 years old, he was just out of high school and looking forward to starting college, dreaming about all of the things he would do as an adult. After a trip to Whitewater, Wisconsin with his friends in the fall of 1998, those dreams ended abruptly. Three weeks after Adams and his two friends returned to Chicago, they were arrested and extradited to Wisconsin, charged with sexual assault.

In early 2000, Adams was wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to 28 years in prison — the longest stretch of the three men accused.

“About a year into my sentence, I became terrified looking at the revolving door of black and brown men going through the prison system,” Adams said. “One day I was playing basketball and listening to some players call each other ‘son, pops, gramps’ and so on. I realized those weren’t nicknames — that was three generations of men in jail together. I decided if I was going to serve 28 years for something I didn’t do, I was going to fight for every last breath.”

The fight took nearly 10 years.

With state appeals failing, Adams and one of his friends connected with the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP), persuading the clinical legal education program to take on his case. The WIP, which seeks to exonerate the innocent and reform the criminal justice system by identifying and remedying causes of wrongful convictions, took on Adams’s case and filed a petition for a new trial on his behalf. WIP claimed there was no evidence to support the conviction, and that Adams’s lawyer had been ineffective in his defense.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied the petition.

Bolstered by the support of his friends, family and faith, Adams stayed motivated, eventually realizing he couldn’t leave his freedom in the hands of others. “I knew that all the things I needed to find were in books,” Adams said. “There was no way I could articulate my innocence without an education. So, I went to the library and attended the school of law in the Department of Corrections.”

Meanwhile, the WIP kept pushing for his exoneration. Finally on June 20, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit overturned the District Court’s decision and Adams’s conviction, releasing him in January and dismissing the charges in February 2007. Nearly 10 years of Adams’s adult life was gone, but he wasn’t done fighting.

“As soon as I got out I knew what I wanted to do,” Adams said. “I knew what my future was going to be, so I committed to it. [Compared to my friends], I came home with my youth, so I was able to focus on school.” Adams worked full-time while pursuing a criminal justice degree at Roosevelt, graduating in 2012 with honors.

He also won the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Scholarship, and attended Loyola University’s law school. Adams graduated in 2015, and a short two years later opened the Law Offices of Jarrett Adams. His work now focuses on helping people in circumstances like the ones he faced.

“If we were able to cut in half the number of people returning to prison, do you know how much money we’d save, how much good we’d do for society?” Adams asked.

Jarrett Adams appearing on Steve Harvey.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, as of 2018 the American criminal justice system holds approximately 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals and prisons in the U.S. territories.

People of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for black people, who make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13 percent of U.S residents.

“I decided if I was going to serve 28 years for something I didn’t do, I was going to fight for every last breath.”

-Jarrett Adams
BA Criminal Justice, ’12

“When a court sentences a person to prison, they don’t send them to reform. They call it the Department of Corrections but nothing is being corrected,” Adams said. “Clearly, the system isn’t designed to correct, it’s designed to warehouse. Your job as a prison is to go out of business — to correct and send people out. That isn’t happening.”

In 2018, the prison industry enjoyed a total revenue of $6 billion, according to market research firm IBISWorld.


“Think of it this way: If a car company had 50 percent of its cars returned, there would be a national debate in Congress, but somehow we haven’t done this with human lives, especially black and brown lives,” Adams said.

Extending the metaphor, Adams continued, “When a person jumps out of an airplane they have a bunch of gear, goggles, harness, parachute and so on. They don’t put it on for the jump, they put it on for the landing. When people are locked up and treated like animals and then they’re just sent out into the world, there are no reentry services. They’re just sent out and expected to land. Some people come home [from prison] at the age of retirement and I have to ask: How can they pull themselves up by their bootstraps?”

Unsurprisingly, Adams receives countless requests for help on a daily basis, but the process of selecting clients is arduous. Most of the cases are years old, with thousands of pages of documents to review, so things can move very slowly. Adams goes back and investigates cases from the start, and once he finds a credible claim, he moves forward and finds funding on the way. He already knew his first client though, a person he served with who’d been imprisoned for 30 years. Adams got him released.

“Until we include the voices of people who have to reintegrate into society it just won’t get better. For now, I want to focus on bringing hope for my clients and being an example of someone who beat the odds.”

-Jarrett Adams
BA Criminal Justice, ’12

“The spirit wasn’t in me to give up, not then, and not now,” Adams said. “A lot of people don’t understand their strength until their strength is tested.”

Right now, Adams is focused on the practice of law, serving his clients, but the future may include lobbying for prison reform, among other things.

“Until we include the voices of people who have to reintegrate into society it just won’t get better. For now, I want to focus on bringing hope for my clients and being an example of someone who beat the odds. I will officially be opening up an office in Chicago next year (in 2019) and I would like to come back to Roosevelt to teach,” Adams said.

“Ultimately, I want to inspire inner-city kids into seeing that there is some power in marching, and there is power in obtaining a law degree,” he said. “There is absolute power in fighting for your rights.”

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