I had a bit of a “Get Off My Lawn” moment this week. When we last circled around the campfire, we talked about the tale of convicted drug trafficker, Alice Johnson and a push for clemency on her behalf by the Queen of the Selfie, Kim Kardashian. There’s the link, if you want to check it out.
Lo and behold–clemency was granted for Johnson, though it was denied by the previous administration. All the news reports focus on the non-violent crime she’d been convicted of and how she just “fell in with the wrong crowd.” (Again, falling in with a bad crowd doesn’t naturally lead to selling tons of blow) Last time I checked, drug trafficking is a messy, violent business. People die. They die in the process of manufacturing, transporting, selling, and using the stuff. Cries from the extreme end of the anti-drug movement in the White House called for the death penalty for traffickers. Let’s be clear–Johnson wasn’t selling dime bags in the local park. She was a central figure in a multi-million dollar cocaine trafficking ring.
Yet clemency was granted, even though according to Department of Justice officials, no application for clemency was on file from Johnson. (previous applications had been denied in 2014 and 2017). So, how did this new action happen from an administration that says it has zero tolerance for traffickers?
Enter the celebrity factor. Kim Kardashian gets access to push for justice for her pet cause. She isn’t the only one. A few months ago, Sylvester Stallone was granted access to the White House to push for a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson. Johnson was convicted for a violation of the Mann Act (transporting a white woman across states lines for immoral purposes) in 1913. Johnson fled and was apprehended in 1920 to serve his ten month prison term. There is little argument that Johnson’s conviction was racially motivated–as was the law at the time.
I’m not suggesting that the cases of Johnson and Johnson didn’t need deliberation and review. Clearly, the mandatory minimums that sent Alice Johnson to prison for life without parole need to be revised. We can punish for drug offenses, but we need to be reasonable about it. The crimes she committed were serious (here’s a link to the indictment if you haven’t seen it) and some measure of punishment was deserved. Twenty years doesn’t seem out of the question for that collection of crimes.
But, don’t make it seem like we’re correcting some great evil that has occurred. She wasn’t railroaded, maliciously prosecuted, or framed. Even the statement of commutation from the White House takes the wrong tone;
“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. Since [Ms. Johnson’s] arrival …, she has exhibited outstanding and exemplary work ethic. She is considered to be a model inmate who is willing to go above and beyond in all work tasks.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel the basic expectation of a prisoner is good behavior. She did what most prisoners do, she complied with the rules. There are other similarly situated inmates who could have been Kim Kardashian’s cause of the week.
The Jack Johnson case is a bit more problematic for me. Yes, he did take a woman across state lines and “had relations with that woman,” who later became his wife. All accounts at the time reveal his arrest was racially motivated. The pardon assumes guilt–guilt for a crime that we all now know should not have been a crime. It’s trying to rewrite history to make the sins of the past disappear as if things are all better now because we fixed ’em.
Neither of these cases went through the traditional review and vetting that pardons and commutations typically experience. They went to the head of the line because a celebrity pushed their way through the crowd like a starlet on her way to brunch. What about the others? What about the people without a celebrity in their pocket? There are over 9,000 inmates who have filed for clemency awaiting a decision.
I’d hate to think there was more of a sinister motive behind these actions. Both Alice and Jack Johnson are persons of color. Not surprising since persons of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. But, were these actions taken to pander to a valuable electoral base? I hope that’s not the case. Justice should be justice–for all of us.
If unrestricted celebrity-sponsored causes continue to drive policy , the message becomes, if you’re a media darling, or a movie star, you can buy the justice for your pet cause of the week, justice that others will never hope to afford. Focusing on these cases ignores the hard work of reform that waits on the sidelines.