On March 31, 2015 President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 U.S. Prisoners, all of whom were serving lengthy sentences for drug-related crimes. It must have been a shocking surprise when those individuals received a letter signed by the President.
He wrote, “Now it’s up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong” (See Gregory Korte, USA Today, article).
Receiving a clemency is a long shot for incarcerated individuals. Few people experience it. I remember being in Danbury, CT. when Kemba Smith was released by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Kemba served six years of a 25-year sentence after she was convicted of a drug related offense.
Kemba was involved with a drug dealer who was murdered after she became incarcerated. As a first time offender, Kemba gained national attention as she was featured in Emerge Magazine, Jet, Essence and more. I remember sitting in the T.V. Room of our dorm when she appeared on 60 Minutes. She sat in the visiting room with the reporter, donning her khaki prison uniform. The reporter reminded her of her privileged life prior to her incarceration.
Kemba was raised as an only child in a two-parent household, and at the time of her incarceration she was enrolled at Hampton University. The reporter told her how some would say she had no excuse for choosing to associate with the “wrong” crowd. Some would argue that she didn’t deserve a second chance because she was reared in an environment where she didn’t lack guidance, resources, or support.
Kemba responded, “Everybody deserves a second chance.” I was so proud of her. Her response was heartfelt.
Throughout the years, while Kemba’s parents fought relentlessly for their daughter’s freedom, I always found myself wondering what it would be like if every deserving woman who was serving time that did not fit their crime had a family who had the fortitude and finances to fight on their behalf. The system would be in disarray, I often thought.
Finally, it seems that the nation is taking a serious look at the injustices committed by the Criminal Justice System. I am pleased that Obama has released 22 people who were serving sentences that were a lot more severe than they would be if those same individuals were sentenced today.
I am even more pleased that the President believes in the capacity of formerly incarcerated people to change. But I wonder what exactly he means when he says, “It will not be easy?” Is he referring to the limited job opportunities for Returning Citizens? Or is he referencing the disenfranchisement and stigma many will face? Is he referring to the irreparable damage that countless families have endured as a result of incarceration? Much to wonder about!