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Kemba Smith in USA Today on the Wisdom of Pardons

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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December 17, 2008

There is an excellent op-ed in today’s USA Today from Kemba Smith urging President Bush to grant clemency requests for those men and women serving lengthy prison sentences for low-level and often first-time drug offenses.

Kemba’s voice on this issue is especially important because it comes from a very personal place. She knows better than most the harsh reality of America’s war on drugs and the impact of draconian mandatory minimum sentences.

But for a last-minute grant of clemency from President Clinton in 2000, Kemba would still be serving the nearly 25-year drug conspiracy sentence in federal prison she received in 1994 in connection to her then boyfriend’s crack cocaine dealing. This was despite the fact that it was a first-time, non-violent offense in which even prosecutors acknowledged that she never sold, handled or used any of the drugs involved in the conspiracy. Are such sentences really the best use of our tax dollars or lost potential in human lives?

I think Kemba’s own words provide the answer:

Today, I could be in federal prison still serving my 24-year sentence. Instead, I’ve been raising my now 13-year-old son, graduated from college in 2002 and completed a year of law school. I own a home and speak to youth about the importance of their choices and the consequences that can affect their lives forever. My own experience led me to create a non-profit foundation that focuses on providing children of incarcerated parents with a mentor, and collaborates with other organizations on justice-reform initiatives.

My story of redemption does not need to be an anomaly. Thousands of petitions for executive clemency are pending before President Bush with a month left in his term. The majority of those are unknown to him or the public. Many are people of color caught up in the war on drugs and serving long mandatory minimum sentences, often for low-level offenses. The president should expedite such applications and grant them clemency.

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