MILITARU: Commuting of sentences should not distract us from real crime reform
Approximately one hundred million viewers like you watched the TV screen on Feb. 2, transfixed as Kansas City pulled through as this year’s Super Bowl champions. On the sidelines, K.C. Wolf and Sourdough Sam delighted and distracted crowds to no end.
This year, President Donald J. Trump hired a mascot too. His mascot did not wear a head-to-toe costume, was not paid the standard $25,000 and certainly did not inspire any laughter from behind the TV screen. This mascot came costumed in a sober black and white commercial with the message that Trump had saved her life.
In 1997, Alice Marie Johnson was incarcerated for being the ring leader in a massive Memphis, Tennessee, drug bust. In 2018, our Trump commuted her life-without-parole sentence, and no less than two years later, he commissioned her to be the poster-child for his criminal justice reform. She spoke about what it feels like to be free as the words, “Presidents talk about criminal justice reform. Donald J. Trump got it done,” flashed across the screen.
But how did Johnson end up on prime-time television? Luck. She was lucky when she became one of six cases commuted by the Oval Office. She was lucky when Kim Kardashian publicly pushed her case. She was lucky when the ACLU decided to fight for her freedom. Make no mistake, Johnson is just one winner in a criminal justice lottery.
On any given day, 451,000 people are taken away from their families and imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, like Johnson’s. In 2016, more than 5,000 people were given a life sentence or equivalent for a drug-related crime. Currently, 20 percent of incarcerated Black Americans are serving a life sentence. Boys born to households in the bottom 10 percent of earners are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated.
All this is not to say that Johnson spent time behind bars for factors outside of her control. She chose to lie with a cartel, and when push came to shove, that same cartel testified against her. While the exact reasons for Johnson’s sentence may be cloudy, two characteristics are crystal clear: her lack of financial security and the color of her skin.
So, what exactly has Trump "gotten done" for people like Johnson? He has expressed his envy over a Chinese drug-dealer execution policy. He has called for physical violence against criminal suspects. But Trump’s crowning criminal justice achievement is former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s appointment, a man who also supported the death penalty in drug cases, blocked investigations into police departments and supported a no-mercy stance on crime.
Sessions may be out of the picture now, but Attorney General William Barr is no better equipped to tackle criminal justice issues.
More ironic still is Kardashian’s support of the Johnson case, a celebrity who’s fame and power was the result of the very same criminal justice system that demonized Johnson. If you trace the Kardashian story to its origin, you will find that it begins sometime in 1995, when her father Robert Kardashian defended a murderer who escaped by the skin of his teeth or more accurately by his $11 million worth.
At best, Kardashian’s philanthropic support for Johnson may have sprouted from good intentions, but it grew in the soil of ill-gotten wealth and was fertilized by the desire to be seen as "woke" on a public stage.
The harsh reality is that few players in Johnson’s life did anything out of the goodness of their hearts, Johnson included. She sold her soul to the devil down in Memphis when she agreed to work for a cartel in exchange for financial freedom. When it came time to collect on her debt, Johnson struck a new deal. This time she agreed to be the dealer of propaganda in exchange for her liberty.
And who can blame her? We all want to be lulled by this siren’s song and believe that an innocent grandmother was freed from a life sentence because the world we live in is forgiving. But she is not innocent and our criminal justice system is far from forgiving.
It is much easier to accept a sweet fairytale, but when the sugar rush is over, our criminal justice system will prove just as bitter. We can hide behind the high of cheap propaganda or we can choose to face the sobering truths that our justice system targets the vulnerable in our society, that political propaganda serves no one but the creator and that real progress takes more than one commuted case.
The question remains, will we fight for real change or will we let a good story trump reality?
Alice Militaru is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in economics. Her column, "Opinions No One Asked For," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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