More than four years after being granted clemency for drug-related charges, Kemba Smith was in the McNally Amphitheatre at Fordham Law School recently telling a room of prospective lawyers about how the judicial system had failed her, and how it is failing countless others.
“I take full responsibility for my actions, but what I did, did not warrant 24 years in prison,” said Smith. “I saw a lot of people in prison who should have been given a second chance.”
Smith, who participated in the panel discussion “Incarceration or Education: Alternatives to Prison Expansion” was a physically and emotionally abused woman convicted in 1994 for aiding and abetting her drug-dealing boyfriend and for lying to federal authorities. According to Smith, the federal prosecutor considered her crimes to be “minor,” but under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines she received 24.5 years in prison. Smith served 6.5 years before being granted clemency by former President Bill Clinton.
Kemba Smith, who spent six-and-a-half years in prison, regularly speaks on the harsh realities of prison life and lobbies for sentences that are more appropriate for the crime.
Photo: Ken Levinson
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Since being released, Smith has continued her college education and has advocated on behalf of men and women who she said are being unfairly incarcerated with extended sentences for nonviolent crimes, contributing to an explosion in the prison population. In 1970, state and federal facilities housed 200,000 inmates. Today, more than two million men and women are incarcerated.
Kate Rhee, the director of the Prison Moratorium Project (PMP), called for a halt to all prison construction, saying that money would be better spent on education to help prevent children from turning to crime in the first place. It costs $130,000 to incarcerate a young person in juvenile detention for one year. Some of that money could be diverted to boost the $9,000 to $10,000 now spent to educate a child for a year. Despite the widely held belief that the prison system does not work, she said, the system has remained unchanged and become a permanent and intricate part of society.
“We don’t need another study to tell us prisons don’t work,” said Rhee. “We know that. What we need is to get people out there to make a change. It is all about a lack of social and political will.”
Patricia Allard, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, agreed that building more prisons is not the solution and urged students to expose themselves to communities that are home to large numbers of incarcerated or at-risk individuals. “We have to listen to those [poor and incarcerated] who are living it because they are the ones who know how to fix it,” said Allard.
The panel discussion was cosponsored by the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, the Joseph R. Crowley Program in International Human Rights, the Black Law Students Association, Community Economic Development Clinic, the William and Burton Cooper Chair in Urban Legal Issues, Universal Jurisdiction, Youth Court Project, and the Peace and Justice Studies Program.
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