September 12, 2018

By Kemba Smith, formerly incarcerated, advocate and author of "Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story"

In the on-going effort to critically analyze our criminal justice system, all stakeholders need to understand the importance of language. It is critical that we don’t fall into the stereotypes of calling people ex-offenders, convicts, or felons - these labels have a negative impact on a person’s whole being. Understanding that whole person and understanding her story helps in re-analyzing what is just and fair regarding if a person is in fact criminally-minded and what their punishment should be. Changing the mindset must start here, if we are to truly make an impact in preventing the over-incarceration of human lives in Virginia and across America.

Changing the mindset must start here, if we are to truly make an impact in preventing the over-incarceration of human lives in Virginia and across America.

In that spirit, I am a formerly incarcerated person, but I am also a loving wife, mother, and daughter.I grew up in Henrico County and went to college inVirginia. While in college, I got caught up in a relationship with a drug dealer. I wasn’t addicted to drugs and I wasn’t criminally-minded. I simply thought I was in love and thought maybe he would change. The relationship became abusive. He killed his best friend because he thought he was cooperating with the authorities, and at that point I couldn’t believe I was with someone who had taken another person life. That love that I had for him turned to fear and the need to protect myself.

I later turned myself in to the authorities, and although I was seven months pregnant with my son, I was denied a bond. The prosecutor promised that if I pled guilty that he would give me a bond to give birth to my son. He reneged on that promise and I remained in custody. A month later the drug dealer that I was involved with was found murdered in Seattle, Wash. This is where the tables began to turn. Eventually, I pled guilty to conspiracy drug charges and was held accountable for possession of 255 kilos of crack cocaine even though the prosecutor admitted I didn’t use or handle the drugs involved inmy ex-boyfriend’s crimes.

In 1995, at 23 years old, I stood in a federal courtroom with the decision of my fate in the hands of an 86-year-old white man, U.S. District Judge Richard Kellham. He should have had the mindset of not just seeing me as an inmate, but as a young pregnant woman who turned herself in and gave birth to her child while she was incarcerated.

He should have seen my parents who loved and supported me in the courtroom with my son. He should have recognized the room filled with people willing to testify as to my character and that I was no threat to public safety. He should have been compassionate enough to listen to the expert testimony regarding the domestic violence and abuse that I endured in my relationship with a drug dealer and how that impacted my decisions that led me down this path into the criminal justice system. Instead he slept during my proceedings.

The judge and prosecutor handling my case should have had the mindset to understand, since the drug dealer with whom I had been involved had been murdered and no longer a factor in my life, to grant a downward departure based on coercion and duress in order to avoid sentencing me so harshly. That mindset was absent, and instead I was sentenced in 1994 to 24.5 years in prison even though I had never been in trouble with the law before and it was a non-violent drug offense.

I was sentenced to prison for longer than I had been living on this earth, and my son would have been a grown man upon my release. Ultimately, and thankfully, President Bill Clinton granted me clemency in December 2000.

The ACLU of Virginia’s report on “Women in the Criminal Justice System: Pathways to Incarceration” highlights the need to change the mindset of our legislators, Commonwealth’s attorneys, judges, magistrates, and supervision officers in understanding why the incarceration of women is increasing in Virginia at a much higher rate than the incarceration of men.

My story falls in line with one of the reasons why young women end up in the system, which is due to domestic partner violence. It is imperative that all stakeholders look beyond what is on paper and discover the full story behind a woman’s criminal history, otherwise it will just be a revolving door at continued increased rates. Thank you to the ACLU of Virginia for taking the first step in trying to reform the criminal justice system for all women in our Commonwealth.  

 

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