The nation’s foolish and costly “War on Drugs” has destroyed so many lives — taking fathers and mothers from their families, condemning parolees to lives on the margins and decimating entire neighborhoods, especially in poor, black areas. It was uplifting, then, to hear that 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, who served 21 years behind bars for her non-violent involvement in a drug-selling scheme, was released from an Alabama prison earlier this week after her sentence was commuted.
Let us now praise President Donald J. Trump, whom Johnson thanked enthusiastically — appropriately so — for the clemency. Yes, there are many things wrong with Trump’s policies toward drug offenders. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has reversed President Barack Obama’s efforts to end lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenders, threatening to go back to the “Reefer Madness” era.
Then there is the president’s use of his clemency powers, which have been largely reserved for celebrities and for the enemies of his enemies. It took intervention by a mega-celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, to win Johnson’s release. West had seen a viral video of Johnson telling her story from behind bars.
That said, Trump has still done something right. Even if just one injustice is corrected, the occasion is worth celebrating.
Johnson was one of the felons featured in a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report on the lengthy prison sentences meted out to non-violent offenders. The mother of five, her life had fallen apart after she was divorced and lost her job with FedEx. She filed for bankruptcy and lenders foreclosed on her house.
As if that weren’t enough, her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Johnson said she became involved in the drug ring as a way to make ends meet; she claims that she never made any drug deals or sold drugs herself but merely relayed messages among others involved. But federal prosecutors gave promises of leniency to several others in the drug ring in exchange for their testimony against Johnson. And, despite a clean record prior to her arrest, she was convicted of several counts and sentenced to life without parole plus 25 years. Killers have gotten less time.
It is hard to imagine that a white mother with the same clean record and minimal involvement in a drug-trafficking scheme would have been condemned to spend the rest of her life in prison. The ACLU found “a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. . . Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse . . . among the nonviolent LWOP population. . . .The ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino.”
The popularity of life-without-parole sentences is a fairly recent feature of a criminal justice system that has become, if anything, more weighed down with unconscious prejudices over the last several decades. Sentencing felons to life without parole became more popular after the U.S. Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in the 1970s; it seems rational that judges, jurors and legislators would have sought out a way to confine the most violent offenders indefinitely.
But only fear, propaganda and frank racism can explain the explosion in life-without-parole sentences for non-violent crimes. In stark contrast to the sensible public conversation around the opioid epidemic, prosecutors, state legislators, police officers and members of Congress spent the 1970s and ‘80s loudly characterizing the crack epidemic as an existential threat to cities around the country — and perhaps to the nation itself. The only response, they claimed, was to lock up any and all involved for long stretches. Is it mere coincidence that the crack epidemic mostly involved black Americans?
The only glimmer of hope for those who remain incarcerated for life as a result of those wretched policies is clemency from the president. So it seems reasonable to suggest that advocates for sentencing reform round up as many Trump-friendly celebrities like Kardashian as they can — where are you, Rosanne Barr? — and show them videos of sympathetic non-violent felons. If that’s the way to get more of them out of prison, let’s get started.