Johnson Pardon Represents A Drop in the Bucket of Mass Incarceration

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Kim Kadashian and President Donald Trump.

By Manny Otiko

hen reality TV star Kim Kardashian met with President Donald Trump to plead for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother doing life for a federal drug charge, I thought it would turn out to be a publicity stunt/photo op. Trump seems to have just realized he has the ability to free people and has recently brandished his pardon power. He recently freed brown-skinned white supremacist Dinesh D’Souza, who has resumed his duties as a crazed right-wing troll.

Surprisingly, Trump has freed Johnson, who is now enjoying her new life with her family. But it wasn’t just a publicity stunt, but something more cynical. Johnson is now gushing with praise for Trump and it seems she is being used as a political pawn to appeal to black voters and push back against charges of Republican racism. The Grio recently printed a story where some Republican Twitter users said that Trump can’t be racist because he freed a black woman.

I’m not buying it. Trump’s actions represent a drop in the bucket. Former President Barack Obama freed more than 1,700 prisoners with his pardon power, so Trump has a long way to go. Also, just because Trump freed one person and pardoned former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, it doesn’t mean we should forget about his affinity for white supremacists, implementing a law that separates families at the borders, denying migrants asylum and banning Muslims.

The case of Alice Johnson represents a greater problem with the American criminal justice — the effects of the War on Drugs. Anybody who said it doesn’t matter who’s president really doesn’t know what they are talking about. Presidents get to set policy that affects everyone and leaves a lasting change on society. President Ronald Reagan ramped up the War on Drugs and introduced mandatory minimum sentences, which left judges forced to hand down harsh sentences even if it was a first-time offense.

That’s what happened to Johnson. After a series of family tragedies, she got involved in a drug ring. Her job was relaying messages, she never handled drugs or killed anyone. But because she was involved in a federal case, she got life in jail because of mandatory sentencing. There are thousands of inmates like her. More than 30 years later, the black community is still feeling the effects of mass incarceration, a result of the War on Drugs.

Both Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder tried to roll back some harsh federal drug sentencing, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to restart it. According to the New York Times, Sessions has made a point of reinstating many of the laws that Holder tried to rollback.

“Mr. Sessions’s memo replaced the orders of former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2013 took aim at drug sentencing rules. He encouraged prosecutors to consider the individual circumstances of a case and to exercise discretion in charging drug crimes,” said the Times.

So, on one hand Trump freed one prisoner but empowers Sessions to continue mass incarceration. But now even conservatives, such as mega donors Charles and David Koch and former Speaker of the House Newton Gingrich, realize it’s not working.

Sorry, if I’m not jumping for joy.

Manny Otiko is a media professional who is based in Southern California. Follow him @mannyotiko on Twitter.

Originally published at on September 14, 2018.

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Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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