The wisdom of pardons

By Kemba Smith

The nomination of Eric Holder as the next U.S. attorney general has renewed concerns about the end-of-term clemencies granted by President Clinton.

High-profile names such as Marc Rich grabbed headlines at the time, but many other people with no political influence benefited from the president’s mercy.

I am one of those people. If I had not received a commutation, my first-time conviction for a non-violent offense would have kept me in prison until 2016 (with good behavior) because of the harsh mandatory sentencing laws for crack cocaine. My 1994 prison sentence grew out of my boyfriend’s trafficking in crack. After he was murdered, the government charged me with conspiracy to distribute the crack that his drug ring distributed. During my court hearings, prosecutors acknowledged that I never sold, handled or used any of the drugs involved in the conspiracy.

 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.

The guidelines for the Office of the Pardon Attorney state that the excessive nature of a sentence and associated sentencing disparity are appropriate considerations when granting a petition for commutation. The federal sentencing policy for crack cocaine offenses is a case in point.

The mandatory five-year sentence for a defendant convicted with five grams of crack cocaine — the weight of two sugar packets — is the same as that for a defendant convicted with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine, even though these are two forms of the same drug. Defendants convicted with 50 grams of crack cocaine, about the weight of a candy bar, receive a minimum sentence of 10 years. A powder cocaine seller must have at least 5 kilograms to receive the same sentence.

For decades criminal justice experts, civil rights leaders and lawmakers have called these sentences unjust. More than 80 percent of people convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black, even though two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic.

Indeed, President Bush raised concerns about the issue before taking office, saying the crack-powder disparity “ought to be addressed by making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same.”

I agree, but despite significant changes made to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine in the past year, the harsh mandatory sentences remain. The president still has time to make good on his promise. His clemency power should be used with thoughtful deliberation. Even so, it should be utilized because clemency is sometimes the only possible response to unfair and excessive penalties.

Smith is founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation. This column was provided by American Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization that provides the media with the views of state experts on major public concerns in order to stimulate informed discussion. 

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