A small step toward justice

7/17/2015, 4:04 a.m.
On Tuesday, President Obama did something I thought he should have started in 2010 when he signed the Fair Sentencing …
Kemba Smith-Pradia

Kemba Smith-Pradia

On Tuesday, President Obama did something I thought he should have started in 2010 when he signed the Fair Sentencing Act — he commuted the sentences of 46 people in federal prison on drug offenses.

The act he signed five years ago limits the harsh mandatory minimum sentences associated with low-level crack cocaine offenses. While progress has been made since then, President Obama’s actions Tuesday made a statement in a big way.

I have been working with several criminal justice organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Clemency Project 2014, The Sentencing Project, FAMM, the ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in this clemency effort since President Obama has been in office. We’ve had monthly conference calls, panel discussions at Congressional Black Caucus events and lobby days and briefings on Capitol Hill. Today, I finally have a renewed sense of hope.

Early in 2014, Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked attorneys around the country to help the U.S. Department of Justice find men and women serving time for nonviolent, low-level offenses because there was a possibility that President Obama would grant mass sentence commutations before leaving office. I admit, I was skeptical because of his track record with commutations and because no other president has exercised his power commuting drug sentences.

But as I stared at the CNN headline on the television screen, “President Barack Obama commutes sentences of 46 drug offenders,” my response was, “Thank you, Jesus! They are getting a second chance, too!”

I wondered if Michelle West, Danielle Metz, Santra Rucker or Ramona Bryant were among the 46. These are women I was incarcerated with, all of whom have nonviolent offenses, all of whom are mothers, all of whom have served over 15 years, all of whom were originally sentenced to life in prison! Sadly, they did not make the commutation list.

Since the Obama administration announced last year that it would grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, more than 35,000 incarcerated people — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened. Granted, I am not so liberal to believe that all those people should go home, but I know that President Obama won’t be able to free all of those who deserve a second chance at life.

Although attention has been focused on the incarceration rate for African-American men in the United States, the female prison population continues to grow at an alarming rate. The number of women in prison — a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses — is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse. Large-scale women’s imprisonment has resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer. Their mothers’ incarceration is tearing families and communities apart.

Out of the 46 people whose sentences were commuted, only five are women. In the next series of commutations, the majority needs to be women — women who can be reunited with their children and families. Of all of the women whose sentences have been commuted by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, none of them have gone back to prison.

Like my friend Michelle West stated in a letter to Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California, clemency is supposed to be an act of mercy. Now it has been turned into a competition or an effort to win the lottery. Congress needs to create and approve legislation to handle this situation, perhaps establish a committee that can take the time to look at all the statistics and individual stories in an effort to provide relief to those who they determine would not be a risk to society and deserve a second chance.

The overall objective of this overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system with the early release of federal inmates is to reduce the enormous costs of overcrowded prisons and address drug sentences handed down under old guidelines that federal officials now view as too harsh.

Maybe one day politicians can come to a consensus that there should be sensible drug policy and resources should be appropriated to identify and address the systemic problems in underserved communities that cause people to go to prison in the first place. Until then, our fight continues.

Ms. Smith-Pradia, who grew up in Henrico County, was sentenced to nearly 25 years in prison on a drug conspiracy conviction involving her boyfriend’s crack cocaine ring. She served nearly seven years in federal prison until President Clinton granted her clemency in December 2000. Her case drew national attention. She now works on justice issues through the nonprofit Kemba Smith Foundation.