Kim Kardashian West wasn’t satisfied with just helping nonviolent drug offender Alice Marie Johnson have her sentence commuted. So now, she’s working with the current Presidential administration to push for “REAL systemic change,” she told followers on Twitter.
During a meeting with senior members of the administration, which included the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, West, as well as several advocates, discussed criminal justice reform and how to fix our judicial system. Some of the attendees included general counsel of Koch Industries Mark Holden and even CNN political commentator Van Jones.
Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney, prison reform advocate, and co-founder of bipartisan initiative #cut50, was also in attendance. She told CNN that everyone in that room hopes for a better system so that “clemency [can be] used more regularly.” But clemency may help individuals like Chris Young, another drug offender who’s serving a life sentence and whose cause has also been embraced by West. It may also help to lessen the budgetary burden related to the ballooning prison system. But it does not address the countless others who are on the path of experiencing the same fate as Johnson’s because of mandatory minimums, which tie the hands of judges and force nonviolent offenders to serve life sentences.
As researchers have pointed out, the most pressing changes we must make to the system to both lower spending and preserve public safety is to first focus on modifying sentencing policies.
As The World’s Top Jailer, America Is Bleeding Taxpayers Dry
The state prison population grew 700 percent since the 1970s when people of color were actually 24 percent more likely to be crime victims than white Americans. But despite being the biggest victims of crime then, government implemented measures meant to fight crime that disproportionately hurt the African-American population, which included drug offenses and mandatory minimums.
Today, with 25 percent of prisoners nationwide being nonviolent, low-level offenders, researchers found that changing how the justice system handles drug-related offenses, as well as other nonviolent offenders, could save up to $20 billion annually.
Texas made major changes to its criminal justice system by making alternatives to incarceration more widely available for nonviolent offenders. The result was an over 20 percent drop in the state’s crime and imprisonment rates. Other states such as New York and California had similar experiences, but when it comes to federal offenses, the reality remains grim.
People caught for “trafficking” illicit drugs are processed by the federal justice system, where most drug-related offenses carry mandatory minimums. This reality takes judicial discretion from the hands of the judge reviewing the case, forcing the convicted prisoner to remain in jail for a minimum term. This process then puts thousands of nonviolent offenders in federal prisons, who must remain there, sometimes for decades without the possibility of parole.
For the taxpayer, that means waste. As it costs the federal government $31,000 per year to keep one person in jail. And for the nonviolent offender, that means a life in hell, unable to contribute to society because of a commercial transaction with no real victims.
Because the African-American is the most impacted community, the very history of the drug war and black music have always been entwined.
From the 1970s up until recently, hip-hop has been used as a warning siren against state-sponsored injustice, with artists bemoaning police brutality and the justice system. Following this long-lasting tradition, West, the wife of rapper Kanye West, as well as Philadelphia-born hip-hop star Meek Mill, are some of the most vocal supporters of criminal justice reform.
Like them, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, and others have been vocal about the reality of African Americans thanks to U.S. drug laws over the years, but not a lot of policy changes were implemented on the federal level to truly modify how the justice system processes offenders. Still, music leaders continue to push for reform not just by talking about it, but by raising money for the cause.
With West being able to reach out to the Trump administration successfully, more could soon be done. Especially if she continues to get the media to talk about her involvement in this cause.
Will Reform Materialize?
Activists who met with members of the White House believe the administration is open to supporting more radical reforms. That is due to the administration’s support of the FIRST STEP Act, a bill that addresses prison reform without touching on sentencing policies.
With the steps made so far thanks to the help of the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Sloan said, they believe Trump has “given a thumbs-up to sentencing reform.” But the next step should be to press the administration to lead the debate on mandatory minimums.
Giving judges discretion over sentencing helps the individual under review, society as a whole, and the taxpayer, who won’t have to financially support yet another nonviolent convict for decades into the future. But most importantly, it helps to lessen the burden that the drug war has placed on the shoulders of people of color.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has long been in opposition of sentencing reform, and could be a hurdle in the way if the administration chooses to side with activists. Still, if there’s a chance people like West could change their minds, activists should take it.
While the injustices produced by the U.S. war on drugs have made victims out of countless people here and abroad for decades, this first step could help pave the path for broader reform. Perhaps then, we’ll be able to have a U.S. president actually champion the end of the drug war launched by the same office decades ago.
Until then, the hip-hop community will continue to sing their resistance to state-sponsored racial ideology.