President Trump has commuted the sentence of first-time nonviolent drug offender and grandmother Alice Marie Johnson — and that was the right thing to do.
Trump’s decision comes after Kim Kardashian met with him in the Oval Office last week in an attempt to convince him to free Johnson.
Now, many people may be tempted to mock this move because it clearly was spurred by advice from a reality-TV star — but really, they shouldn’t. On this issue, Kardashian was completely correct, and Donald Trump was right to have listened to her.
In case you aren’t familiar with Johnson, in 1996 she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole plus 25 years for her role in a cocaine-trafficking operation in Memphis. Johnson claims that she herself never actually sold anyone any drugs but rather acted as an intermediary among the people who were involved. When she was tried on drug and money-laundering charges, ten of her co-conspirators testified against her.
According to a profile of Alice Marie Johnson in Mic, she was going through an unspeakably difficult time when she chose to get involved in the drug business. In 1989, she and her husband divorced. In 1990, she lost her job at FedEx — which she’d had for a decade – because of her gambling addiction. She couldn’t pay her bills and filed for bankruptcy. Her house was foreclosed on. Then, in 1992, her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident. That, she said, was the last straw for her — she decided then to start making money in a way that she later regretted.
“I went into a complete panic, and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money,” Johnson told Mic.
Johnson was arrested in 1993. By all accounts, she was a model prisoner during her time behind bars and completely turned herself around. She became an ordained minister, a mentor, a playwright, and a counselor. She spent time with inmates who were suicidal. She didn’t have a single disciplinary infraction on her record during her entire time in prison. What’s more, she has vowed to continue to help people behind bars when she’s released; in the past, she even insisted that she’d have a job ready if she ever got out.
A 2013 report from the ACLU found that there were a whopping 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses. This is a tragedy.
Of course, what Johnson did was wrong, and she acknowledges that fact. In an op-ed Johnson wrote Johnson wrote for CNN, she stated: “I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.” But here’s the thing: There’s a huge difference between having done something wrong and having done something that warrants life imprisonment. All too often, our criminal-justice system fails to see that difference.
A 2013 report from the ACLU found that there were a whopping 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses. This is a tragedy. Imprisoning this many nonviolent people for this long not only destroys lives and families, but it also costs taxpayers billions of dollars. I don’t know the exact circumstances of all of these cases, but odds are that many of these people, like Johnson, made bad choices when they were in a difficult spot. In many instances, the people our country throws behind bars are people who need help, not imprisonment. Helping them would be an approach worth trying, especially since it’s estimated that it would save taxpayers billions of dollars in prison costs. I’d also guess that Alice Johnson is not the only one of these people who has turned her life around, and I have absolutely no doubt that there are many others who deserve a second chance.
Clearly, our criminal-justice system needs some serious reforms. There are many other incarcerated people, including Matthew Charles, who still deserve freedom. Still, there’s no doubt that in the case of Alice Marie Johnson, the president did the right thing — and for that, he deserves credit.