By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
One of the goals of the current effort to reform the nation’s criminal justice system is abolishing the federal and state mandatory minimum sentencing policy, especially for low level nonviolent offenses.
Individuals involved in the use and distribution of illicit drugs such as crack cocaine have had long sentences imposed on them, compared to shorter ones for powdered cocaine.
Twenty-four years ago, then Kemba Smith, a student at Hampton University was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison for her indirect role in a crack cocaine drug ring run by her abusive boyfriend.
He later was murdered; she gave birth to her son while in prison; and thanks to lobbying by the Black Press, NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), lawmakers like Rep. Robert C. Scott, who represents the 3rd District where the school is located, her sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton in 2000, after she had served six years.
Ironically, Clinton was the president who imposed the sentencing guidelines after they were passed by Congress and recently said he regretted supporting the measures.
Democratic Congressman Scott and other lawmakers are now being joined in advocating for reforms of these sentencing guidelines, calling the policy unfair, especially if the offense does not involve violence by low level street peddlers and users.
Scott cites the overall cost of such policies, the impact on the individual’s ability to secure employment and benefits on release from prison, and evidence that medical treatment and drug court would be more effective.
Also, the current policy has had a disproportionate effect on mostly poor urban African-American men and women. Scott’s and other lawmakers’ stand on such reforms has been joined by President Barack Obama and even conservative Republican politicians and advocacy groups like the Koch Foundation.
Smith-Prada now lives in Richmond and has written a book about her experiences. Also, she runs a foundation advocating for judicial reforms.
Smith-Prada speaks at forums to present a good example of those who have been victimized by the disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system.
Recently she read the list of the names of the 46 people serving mandatory minimum sentences which were commuted by President Obama. It was a positive sign of the President’s commitment to reforms, but Smith-Prada was concerned.
“I commend the President. I wish he could have done this six years earlier,” said Smith-Prada. “But I only saw five women on that list. I know women who are serving life sentences. We do not know the toll it takes on the children of these women who are the primary caregivers of our children.”
Her son, William Aman Smith, today is a senior at Washington and Lee University, Smith-Prada said, unlike many other women she knows serving time, “I did not have whole chunks of my life stolen from me. I had a chance to see my children grow up while I was free, not while I was behind bars.”
Smith-Prada said she was vaguely aware of her deceased boyfriend’s involvement in the drug ring while she was at Hampton, and like a lot of women, she “was caught up in the process when the operation was taken down by authorities.”
Congressman Scott said that drugs courts, treatment and other options would reduce the nation’s high level of incarceration for nonviolent offenders, who are among the 2.3-plus million inmates currently in the nation’s jails.
“There are first offenders, sentenced to 20 years, for a low level offense and you need the President’s intervention to set you free,” said Scott. “Robbers … only get two years at most. How many people are serving sentences not only in federal prison, but at the state level, too?”
Scott and other reformers also are seeking to equalize the sanctions for sentences of people involved in the crack cocaine distribution, who receive higher sentences than those dealing the powdered form.
Recently Scott and Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at safely reining in the size and associated costs of the federal criminal code and prison system.
Called “The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015 (H.R. 2944), the measure would take a broad-based approach to improving the federal sentencing and corrections system, from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.
It is the first bill addressing the federal supervision system to reduce recidivism; to devote prison space on violent and career criminals; to increase the use of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration; to curtail over-criminalization; to reduce crime; and to save money.
Smith-Prada recently spoke before the gathering hosted by the Clinton Foundation where she urged wider use of drugs courts, and other alternatives to jailing first time offenders, especially those who are parents.
“I am concerned also about people who leave prison, but return to their home environments which got them caught up in the system,” she said. “I hope the President will continue commuting sentences. But with no support systems available to them once they get out, the recidivism rate will continue to be high.”