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Clinton’s pardon saved me, but what about the others?

Published: November 16, 2004

November 16, 2004

Clinton’s pardon saved me, but what about the others?
By Kemba Smith

Congress should give judges the power to be smart on crime by being just in sentencing.

The federal government reported last week that even though both violent and property crimes declined during the past year, the prison population continues to grow. This contradiction reveals a problem with the way judges are required to sentence criminal defendants. I know from personal experience.

In 1994, I pleaded guilty to a first-time, non-violent drug offense and was sentenced to 24 years in prison under the federal sentencing guidelines. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases U.S. vs. Booker and U.S. vs. Fanfan challenging the guidelines’ constitutionality.

As the justices ponder whether the federal guidelines violate a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and as members of Congress craft their responses to the court’s decision, they must keep in mind the practical effects their rulings and policies will have on the millions represented in the government’s new incarceration data people like me and families like mine.

The details of my case

My views on this subject were forged by more than six years in prison, and by what felt like a lifetime of uncertainty about whether I would ever get my life back. In 1991, I was a 19-year-old college student looking forward to graduating and becoming a businesswoman. I became romantically involved with a man involved in drug trafficking. My incarceration resulted from my relationship, which moved from romantic to abusive. Fearing for my safety and that of my parents, I did not break away.

Even though the federal prosecutor in my case conceded I never sold, handled or used drugs, he still charged me with conspiracy, an offense that exposed me to the same mandatory sentence a drug trafficker would receive.

Despite my poor choices, it is hard to understand how locking up a first-time, non-violent drug offender until Jan. 5, 2016, at a cost of $25,000 a year, would make America safer. After years of efforts by my parents and lawyers calling powerful people, writing letters and organizing my community a miracle happened. President Clinton looked at my case and decided an injustice had been done. He granted me executive clemency in 2000.

The current sentencing scheme discourages federal judges from doing what Clinton did in my case: taking into account the full circumstances when imposing a sentence. Both the federal guidelines at issue in the Supreme Court cases and mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress limit a judge’s ability to conclude that justice will be best served by a lesser sentence.

Listen to the people

The public does not believe long sentences reduce crime. According to one survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, sentencing “reform receives especially strong support from blacks (64% favor), but also from a majority of whites (54%) and Hispanics (57%).”

Most people polled believe we should concentrate our efforts on crime prevention and rehabilitation not simply punishment and enforcement.

The fact that blacks and Hispanics favor reform at a slightly higher rate than whites is not surprising since members of our communities are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates and have been targeted by law enforcers executing the so-called war on drugs.

As Congress takes up these questions of sentencing, as it will regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, it must catch up to the public’s more reasonable take on crime and punishment. It has some work to do. Just last summer, in fact, one congressman introduced a bill to mandate a life sentence for some non-violent drug offenses.

My story is not unique. There are thousands of other women and men many of them parents like me caught in this web of excessive, inappropriate sentences that ruins lives without reducing crime. I cannot forget the reality of my lost years or the miracle that gave me a second chance.

When Congress turns its attention to federal sentencing, it must leave room for those chances and give judges the opportunity to offer true justice.

Kemba Smith, a former federal prisoner, is a legal assistant at Arnold Henderson & Associates in Richmond, Va. She is a Soros Fellow advocating federal drug-sentencing reform and founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation.