Alice Marie Johnson wasn’t able to be there when her parents died — nor could she witness the births of her six grandchildren and great-grandchild. That’s because Johnson has been in prison for 22 years serving life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense.
“My grandchildren only know me through prison communications,” she wrote to The Intercept from the Aliceville correctional facility in Alabama. “My daughter Tretessa has twin three month old babies who I’m looking forward to holding and rocking!”
Now she’s getting that chance.
“I can never get back the years that I have been absent from their lives, but I sure can make new unforgettable memories with them,” she said.
On Wednesday, the White House issued a statement confirming that President Donald Trump has commuted Johnson’s sentence. Not only does it mark an enormous personal victory for Johnson, but it also validates the advocacy efforts of TV star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian West, who made news last week when she met with Trump about Johnson’s case, fresh off a bizarre few days of coverage on a bubbling bromance between her husband Kanye West and the president.
When Trump posted a picture of him and Kardashian West, the internet went wild with gleeful outrage. The New York Post cover slapped “Trump meets rump!” on its cover. Others questioned Kardashian West’s expertise on issues relating to prison reform.
But Johnson’s counsel, Brittany Barnett, saw no contradiction between Kardashian West’s mission and her background. “First of all, she’s at the White House advocating on behalf of Ms. Alice,” Barnett told The Intercept. “You do not need to be an expert to know that Ms. Alice does not deserve to die in prison.”
“That’s a humanitarian issue. She’s using her platform to literally save someone’s life. You don’t have to be an expert to know this shit is wrong.”
Perhaps it’s time for fewer experts to be involved in crafting criminal justice reform. The approach so far has focused on model, small-time, nonviolent drug offenders, to the exclusion of all other inmates. But in order to roll back mass incarceration, the doors will have to be swung open for hundreds of thousands of people who were convicted of more serious crimes — like Alice Johnson.
In the mid-1990s, Johnson suffered a series of devastating tragedies. She lost her job and couldn’t find another one that paid enough to take care of her children. She suffered from a gambling addiction. Then, her son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
She also made what she’s called “the worst decision of my life” and got involved in a drug conspiracy. She was caught, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, even though she hadn’t committed any violent acts.
She was convicted of being a ring leader in a major conspiracy, but claims that she was just a low-level player. But it shouldn’t matter when considering whether someone in their early 20s should die in prison.
Barnett got involved in criminal justice reform when she was a law student. Her own mother, who’d struggled with addiction, spent a little over two years in prison. It was hell. “Now imagine your mother’s in prison not for two years, but for 22 years — and sentenced to die there?” she said.
“It’s a human dignity issue. Is Ms. Alice unworthy to breathe air as a free woman ever again? That’s morally indefensible.”
The White House statement that accompanied her release did not discuss harsh sentencing standards. Rather, it made clear that “this Administration will always be very tough on crime,” though “it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
The implication that Johnson had paid her debt despite not having served out her full sentence suggests an understanding on Trump’s part — even if it’s only instinctual — that the sentence was unjust.
A statement issued by Neil Eggleston, who served as Barack Obama’s White House counsel at the end of his presidency, similarly stressed the role that rehabilitation and growth played in Obama’s choice to extend unprecedented clemency. But it also nodded to “unduly long sentences for drug crimes.”
Still, Obama did not commute Johnson’s sentence and, in an ironic twist, Johnson’s cellmate, Sharanda Jones, was granted a presidential pardon by Obama in 2015. Neither Johnson nor her current lawyer know why she was passed over. Perhaps a deadline was missed, or it’s plausible that her conviction, tied to a major conspiracy, is what kept her from clemency — which should be a wake-up call to policymakers crafting narrowly tailored reform efforts.
“Her best friend is out, and she’s got survivor’s remorse over Alice,” Barnett told The Intercept prior to Johnson’s release. Jones’s feelings of remorse will presumably be quelled by today’s news, but according to the American Civil Liberties Union, over 3,000 people are currently serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses like those for which Johnson and Jones served decades.
For Trump, who bristles at the checks, balances, and shared power embedded in the American form of government, the pardon power has an obvious appeal, one of the few royal elements slipped into the Constitution. The ability to bestow a rose on a lucky contestant — or, just as importantly and dramatically, not to do so — plays perfectly into his reality TV approach to governing. That it was Kardashian West who brought him the case is an added bonus for Trump.
In addition to Johnson, Kardashian West has recently tweeted about Matthew Charles — a 51-year-old man released in 2016 after crack cocaine penalties were revised, who was re-incarcerated after Trump’s U.S. Attorney’s office decided to appeal his case.
“[Charles] serves over 21 years, is released, finds a job, new relationship, starts a new life, & now is being sent back for another 10 yrs because the original release was in error,” tweeted Kardashian West. “This man has completely rehabilitated himself.”
Charles’s counsel announced last week that his clemency petition would be sent to the White House soon.
As long as Jeff Sessions remains attorney general, though, there can be little hope of a broader softening when it comes to criminal justice reform. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal cut funding for the Department of Justice grant programs by 20 percent — implicating grants intended to reduce incarceration and address the opioid epidemic — and “calls for an end to police reform programs,” according to NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Meanwhile, Sessions has instructed prosecutors to pursue the most punitive charges and sentences possible.
And Trump himself, of course, has called for drug dealers like Alice Johnson to be executed.
Correction: June 6, 2018, 4:34 p.m. An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Alice Johnson’s lawyer, Brittany Barnett.