Recently I attended a conference in Nashville, Tennessee where I had the pleasure of hearing an amazing speaker. This particular speaker had been sentenced to a mandatory 24 and a half years in federal prison with no chance of parole even though she was a first-time non-violent offender. Kemba Smith Pradia eventually regained her freedom after serving 6 and a half years when President Clinton granted her executive clemency in December 2000.
Now let’s be clear on the facts. It was not from the goodness of his heart that President Clinton decided to grant clemency. Many people fought on her behalf, such as the NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, and The Links, Incorporated. These groups raised millions of dollars, mounted a letter-writing campaign, and they flooded the media with the details of this harsh punishment.
Let’s also be clear that these harsh sentencing guidelines were developed during the Clinton presidency. It was his solution to the drug epidemic. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 provided funding for tens of thousands of community police officers and drug courts, banned certain assault weapons, and mandated life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. These mandatory life sentences were known as the “three strikes and you are out” provision.
Other important points to remember include the fact that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders voted in favor of that crime bill. And though Hillary Clinton was not in the Senate at the time, she was also in favor of the bill.
The Kemba Smith story resonates with me for a variety of reasons. I was a recent college graduate when I read her story for the first time in Emerge magazine back in the ’90s. Smith was a sheltered girl from a two-parent home who attended debutante cotillions, played a musical instrument and did all the other activities that middle-classed young people do. However, she started dating a drug dealer while attending college at Hampton University in Virginia. Your daughter or my daughter could have easily been Kemba Smith!
Throughout her relationship with this young man, there were warning signs for Smith and her friends. He was mentally and physically abusive. He was also very jealous and possessive. He isolated her from her friends and her family. He demonstrated typical abuser tendencies. Even when Smith’s friends would notice that her clothes were disheveled and she was obviously wounded, no one said anything.
The Kemba Smith story brings to light so many issues that need to be addressed: mass incarcerations of blacks who commit non-violent crimes, intimate partner violence, and sentencing disparities as it relates to crack vs. powder cocaine. For example, 5 grams of crack has the same federal five-year minimum sentencing as 500 grams of powder cocaine. If you are lost in the semantics, let me explain. Poor, minority people are individuals most likely to use cocaine and wealthy, white people are more likely to use powder cocaine.
As we send our young people, particularly our young girls, off to college, we need to do more than just buy the supplies for their dorm rooms. We need to warn them about the dangers that ease onto the campuses of their beloved institutions. We need to also share with them the resources they need if they are in situations similar to Smith.
Though Kemba Smith is free today, she will never be able to regain those precious years she lost in prison. Therefore, let us also not forget to continue to fight for criminal justice reform. The circle of dysfunction is real. Incarcerated parents cannot raise their children, have difficulty gaining employment, have no health insurance on release, and eventually may bounce right back into the system due to this impossible cycle of despair.
Stay woke. Now is not the time to be complacent.
Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D., FAAFP, is associate professor at SLUCare Family Medicine and the medical accuracy editor of The St. Louis American. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.