President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson. This comes a week after Kim Kardashian-West’s trip to the Oval Office. There, she spoke to the president about prison reform and pleaded Alice Marie Johnson’s case.
Many are still bashing both reality TV stars. However, it marks an important moment for prison inmates, prison advocates and prison loved ones. In the end, it seems these two were able to make an important move toward prison reform.
Trump Can We Speak? Reality TV Star to Reality TV Star
Since Trump’s inauguration, many special interest organizations have attempted to reach out to the Trump administration through a variety of means. We have attempted science to beseech him on climate change, angry marches to call out his conduct with women, and passionate protests to protect the rights of immigrants to the US.
Unfortunately, none of those spoke Donald Trump’s language. We needed another reality TV star to help get the job done.
As it turns out, this marks the second pardon Donald Trump issued following a consultation with a celebrity. Last month, Trump posthumously pardoned the boxer Jack Johnson after an appeal by Sylvester Stallone.
In Trump’s World… Reality TV Speaks Volumes
The way it’s come about might be odd, to say the least. But in this case, the result is worth the implications of who we need to send to get the president’s ear.
Alice Marie Johnson was set to serve a life sentence for a first-time non-violent offense. But during the 21 years this grandmother served her sentence, she has still been active. She is now:
- Ordained minister
- GED volunteer
- Published author
The Long Battle for Alice Marie Johnson
Her story is not unknown. Over 200,000 people have signed a petition for her release. And the non-profit organization CAN-DO (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders) has advocated for her since 2014, when the Obama Administration supposedly didn’t respond to requests for clemency.
Additionally, Johnson was one of six prisoners featured in the ACLU’s ad campaign against mass incarceration. She was supported by the signatures of over 200,000 people in a petition for her release.
Finally, she was released from prison on June 6th, just this past Wednesday.
Regarding Alice Marie Johnson’s release, the White House released the statement:
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades. Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates.”
The statement continued:
“While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
When asked about Kim K’s meeting with President Trump on her behalf, Alice Marie Johnson responded:
“I could only thank God for he works in mysterious ways.”
The Broader Perspective of the Alice Marie Johnson Story
Should Non-Violent Conspiracy Charges Carry Life?
Alice Marie Johnson’s story exemplifies a major issue in our justice system. One of her charges is “conspiracy to possess cocaine.” According to CAN-DO, a large majority of those incarcerated are prosecuted with charges of one of more of the following:
- Conspiracy to distribute
- Conspiracy to manufacture
- Conspiracy to import an illegal substance
A conspiracy charge transfers guilt down the line. And those who don’t cut deals with prosecutors end up serving long sentences.
Keep in mind for many, to testify against their co-conspirators can put themselves and their families in danger. It is often those with the most to lose and the most tangentially involved that are trapped by the charges.
Conspiracy charges, particularly when offenders don’t agree to a plea bargain, often results in harsher sentences. This is even true for those who, like Alice Marie Johnson’s case, are first-time offenders. People who made one mistake out of desperation and whose lives were destroyed because of it.
This comes with the knowledge judges tend to place higher sentences on Black people than they do white people.
Combined with the fact that the 3,278 individuals given life sentences without parole for non-violent crimes:
- 79% are drug offenders
- 65% are Black
It’s apparent why so many, including celebrity personalities, have circled around Alice Marie Johnson’s story.
In the end, Kim Kardashian was able to do what others, including prison advocates, have attempted to do for decades. Not only did she get the President to free Ms. Johnson, but caused him to set a precedent he can’t take back.
Alice Johnson’s mass incarceration story is not the first. And, thanks to the new precedent set by Donald Trump when he released her, it won’t be the last.
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney’s not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.