Alice Marie Johnson’s Sentence Commuted By President Trump
Alice Marie Johnson has had her life sentence commuted by President Trump. Johnson’s reprieve comes after she has served 21 years of a life sentence, and is due in no small part to many advocates taking up her cause. Most recently Kim Kardashian West made news by appealing directly to President Trump on the matter, apparently successfully.
President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time non-violent drug offender, two White House officials told CNN, a week after Kim Kardashian West pleaded her case during an Oval Office meeting with Trump.
Johnson has already served 21 years of a life sentence after she was convicted on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine, according to the nonprofit Can-Do, which advocates for clemency for non-violent drug offenders.
She is expected to be released from prison soon.
The issue has been championed by many justice reform activists, and recently became very high profile when Kim Kardashian West appealed on Johnson’s behalf to President Trump:
Trump and Kardashian West met with Trump in the Oval Office last Wednesday after she first reached out to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump to help set up the meeting. Jared Kushner has been leading a push on prison reform as part of his portfolio as a senior adviser to the President.
“I would like to thank President Trump for his time this afternoon. It is our hope that the President will grant clemency to Ms. Alice Marie Johnson who is serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense,” Kardashian West said in a statement after meeting with Trump. “We are optimistic about Ms. Johnson’s future and hopeful that she — and so many like her — will get a second chance at life.”
So who exactly is Alice Marie Johnson and what were her crimes? Bustle summarizes:
“Before my incarceration, I had a full life,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed at CNN Thursday. “I married my childhood sweetheart and became the mother to five beautiful children. As the years went on I became a facilitator training people on how to be managers. I was a manager at FedEx for seven years. Life for a time was good.”
However, a series of hardships soon threw Johnson’s life into disarray. In 1989, she and her husband divorced. A year later, she says lost her job at FedEx, ultimately filing for bankruptcy and losing her house in the process. Then, in 1992, her youngest son was killed in a scooter accident.
At that point, Johnson gradually became involved in a drug trafficking operation in Memphis, Tennessee. She says that she never brokered any deals or handled drugs, but was responsible for relaying coded messages over the phone.
“I acknowledge that I have done wrong,” Johnson wrote in her op-ed. “I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.”
In 1993, Johnson and 15 others were arrested on various drug charges. During the trial, 10 of Johnson’s co-defendants testified against her, and received sentences ranging from no jail time to 10 years in prison in exchange, according to Mic. Johnson, however, was granted no such leniency, and despite having no previous drug charges, was sentenced to life in prison in 1997.
Johnson appealed to President Barack Obama for clemency three times, according to Business Insider. But although Obama did grant clemency to many nonviolent drug offenders during his presidency, his administration rejected Johnson’s case all three times.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia isn’t a supporter of legalizing drugs. But he does believe that passing federal laws against them has done harm to the U.S. government. “It was a great mistake to put routine drug offenses into the federal courts,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal went on to report Scalia’s belief that the laws forced Congress to enlarge the federal court system, and diminished “the elite quality of the federal judiciary.”
This isn’t a new problem. Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained as far back as 1989 that the war on drugs was overwhelming the federal judiciary. In 1995, Kathleen F. Brickley, an academic, found that “the Federal system is strained to capacity due, in large part, to the government’s war on drugs.”
Joel Cohen in The Hill:
But there used to be an escape hatch. Before the Sentencing Reform Act, effective late 1987, required virtually mandatory sentences (which, in 2005, became more malleable “guidelines”), a judge had the unbridled power to reduce a sentence – for any reason, or no reason at all– as long as the defendant filed for the reduction within 120 days from when he was sentenced or when his appeals ran out, whichever was later.
There were, at the time, no sentencing guidelines that would have informed a judge’s sentencing leniency and the judge was permitted to take a “second look” under “Rule 35” (of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure), a then reflexively-used weapon in the defense lawyer’s arsenal.
So, once the judge’s ardor had cooled; or the judge simply had a second thought; or the defendant had gotten what the judge perceived as a needed “taste” of prison; or the victim was more forgiving given the passage of time; or even the judge’s baby granddaughter simply had a pretty smile on her face when the judge left for court that day; the judge could simply lower the sentence – literally to any period of time that the judge chose, even immediate probation.
And the sentencing judge could choose boldly and wildly; indeed, some judges (it is said) actually factored into the initially harsh sentence their intention to reduce it later.
Added to this mix is that judges are flatly unable – other than by making recommendations to the Bureau of Prisons, a bureaucracy that, under case law, is completely free to ignore them – to decide what prison a defendant should be placed in and whether it is near or far from family who, the judge believes, would visit if they could?
Meaning, a judge cannot tell the Bureau how to treat its prisoner – formerly the judge’s defendant – when he has been a model prisoner or is gravely or even terminally ill. No, when a defendant is sentenced, the judge has virtually no ability whatsoever to follow up or add to the discussion of that defendant’s future even in compassionate release scenarios.
So, when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 determined that the Sentencing Reform Act’s mandatory sentences could be no more than “guidelines,” why didn’t Congress reinstate the Rule 35 escape hatch, if you will; a procedural device that empowered judges to rethink the sentence which may have been too harsh when executed – the harshness perhaps motivated, in part, by the public fury over the case at the time (even though appointed-for- life federal judges will state, likely truthfully, that the public’s views do not factor into their decision-making).
Perhaps it is simply that a previously arrogant defendant, having spent a mere 120 days in jail, has finally come to grips with the gravity of what he did, and can better articulate his remorse. Sentencing is not only about punishment and deterrence. It is also about mercy and hope.
Why should Congress want to deprive defendants – and, for that matter, our judges – of that “mercy” function? Shouldn’t the Legislature reinstate that second bite of the apple when cooperation is not implicated so that, at least to some extent, a judge can revisit his now non-mandatory sentence?
Unquestionably many, many individuals sitting in prison deserve to be there for long periods of time. But there are also many, many that don’t deserve to be there as long as originally imposed by the sentencing judge.