Drugs

Is Trump Using His Pardon Powers the Right Way?

Trump prefers to pardon prominent public figures, but what about people in the lower tax brackets?

Photo Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr

President Trump and the use of presidential pardons is all over the news. Earlier this week the President met with Kim Kardashian to discuss the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother who has spent more than 20 years behind bars on a drug charge.

And yesterday he used his power to pardon to grant relief to Dinesh D’Souza, who was convicted of campaign finance violations and has never spent a day in prison. Some critics have said this was a signal to his lawyer Michael Cohen, who is under investigation for the same crime, to be quiet and not help in the investigation of the president. Trump has said he also might grant relief to former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich who was sentenced to 14 years and Martha Stewart who spent five months in prison for lying to government investigators about stocks. Trump described their cases as “really unfair”.

For the most part, President Trump has ignored the pending 10,000 or so applications for pardon relief from regular prisoners and has focused on granting pardons to prominent public figures whose cases aligned with his politics.

Kardashian was emotionally moved when she saw a Twitter post about a 63-year-old grandmother who was serving a life sentence for drugs without parole. In 1997, Alice Marie Johnson was found guilty of cocaine conspiracy and money laundering in Tennessee. She was sentenced to life without parole for leading a multi-million dollar drug ring that dealt tons of cocaine from 1991 to 1994. U.S. District Judge Julia Gibbons called the 41-year-old Memphis woman the quintessential entrepreneur. According to the Tennessean, a newspaper in Nashville, during Johnson’s trial evidence was presented that showed an operation with Texas-based Columbian drug dealers and their Memphis connections trading cocaine for millions.

Now 21 years later, the 62-year-old grandmother has turned her life around and has gathered the support of many high-profile influencers, including Kardashian, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner who set up a meeting with President Trump on Tuesday. 

As the first person to receive clemency and a pardon in New York, I applaud Kardashian for helping to support clemency for Ms. Johnson. On the other hand, I have great sadness for the hundreds of thousands of people who are rotting away in state and federal prisons because of the drug war.

The war on drugs has created thousands of cases similar to Alice Johnson due to its severe sentencing structure. And the majority of those cases do not have the superstar support and media coverage which is dearly needed when advocating for release via pardon power. To balance the scales of justice to those who do not possess the ability to create a successful campaign as Ms. Johnson we need to address the war on drugs’ draconian sentencing to prevent giving life sentences without parole to non-kingpins.

I was sentenced to 15-to-life in 1985 for a first time nonviolent drug crime when I passed an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine in exchange for $500. I was a mule in a sting operation and spent the best years of my life in a 6x9 foot cage until Gov. Pataki granted me executive clemency via the support of many movie stars. 

There are many nonviolent federal drug offenders like Alice who have spent a tremendous amount of time in prison and have exhausted all of their legal remedies. They are ready to return home.

President Trump should step up and give these people a second chance in the name of justice.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

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Anthony Papa is the manager of media and artists relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency.