On a Sunday morning in late July, in a small town in southwest Alabama, Barbara Moore Knight gave her fellow church members news that brought spontaneous applause and murmurs of “Amen!” She told them that her son, James LaRon Knight, was among the drug felons whose sentences had been commuted by President Barack Obama the week before.
In 2004, Knight was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine. Although the crime was nonviolent, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in a federal prison. The sentence was a travesty, an unduly harsh punishment for a family man never accused of running a substantial criminal enterprise.
Knight, 48, is among countless black Americans ruined by the long, costly and punitive effort to stamp out recreational use of illegal drugs. The owner of a barbershop in suburban Atlanta, he was convicted on the testimony of acquaintances who found themselves caught in the spiderweb of the criminal justice system and offered him up as a way to appease authorities. There was no direct evidence that Knight possessed or sold banned substances.
Recognizing the havoc wreaked by the so-called war on drugs, especially in black America, Obama has worked to ameliorate its effects. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the Clemency Project, which aims to reduce the disproportionately long federal sentences handed out to hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders over the past decade or so. The president has reduced or ended the prison sentences of more than 560 federal prisoners so far, most of them convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.
Obama also helped persuade Congress to reduce the inequities in federal drug-sentencing policies, which had punished those convicted of handling crack cocaine more harshly than those sentenced for powdered cocaine. (Many states retain similar inequitable statutes.) The old law gave a person convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack, which was more prevalent in poor black neighborhoods, a mandatory five-year prison sentence. But those who possessed powdered cocaine, used mostly by more affluent whites, had to have 100 times as much to draw the same sentence. The new federal law substantially narrows the disparity.
Given increasing awareness of the costs of the war on drugs and of the inequities that still haunt the criminal justice system, you’d think that the Clemency Project would have been greeted with universal support. The burden of mass incarceration falls heavily on the shoulders of black Americans, who are less likely than whites to use illegal drugs, according to research, but more likely to go to prison for drug crimes anyway.
Still, there are many prosecutors and conservative politicians who have denounced Obama’s push against mass incarceration. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, rushed to condemn Obama’s most recent commutations, claiming the president “continues to abuse executive power in an unprecedented, reckless manner.”
So the prejudices — the preconceived notions, the stereotypes, the outright racism — continue. The tragic heroin epidemic has prompted an outpouring of sympathy and calls for a less punitive approach to illegal drugs, but heroin users are overwhelmingly white. That compassion has not been extended to black Americans, who are still regarded as more drug-addled, more violent, more dangerous and more deserving of lengthy prison terms.
(Tellingly, those prejudices extend beyond the criminal justice system and into the medical establishment. According to research, doctors are less likely to prescribe heavy-duty painkillers, such as oxycodone, to black patients, even when their pain is severe. “Our data pretty clearly say it’s a race issue,” Raymond Tait, a pain researcher at Saint Louis University in Missouri, told The New York Times.)
Barbara Moore Knight describes herself as “still on cloud nine” after the news of her son’s early release. “I really do thank God for working through President Obama,” she said.
Her obvious joy notwithstanding, her family has paid dearly for America’s obsession with treating nonviolent drug crimes as existential threats to the republic. Her son’s marriage fell apart after his incarceration; he missed crucial years with his sons, who are now 27 and 14. Obama’s clemency cannot restore those pieces of a man’s life.
(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Inmates walk in San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson