My life saved by reprieve of 24-year sentence for crack

December 22, 2010|By Kemba Smith Pradia, Special to CNN


    Ten years ago, days before Christmas, President Bill Clinton changed my life forever. I was in federal prison, serving the seventh year of a 24-year sentence for a first-time nonviolent crack cocaine offense.

    Clinton's mercy and acknowledgement that my sentence was unjust led him to grant me a commutation. Had he not done so, I would be in prison until 2016. On December 22, the anniversary of my release, I will join others in a fast for justice to honor those in prison who deserve the same relief from their long sentences for low-level drug offenses.

    Many things have changed in the last decade. I graduated from college, attended law school, got married, raised my son who was born while I was incarcerated and gave birth to a daughter. I also established my own foundation to give hope to children of incarcerated parents.

    At the same time, the sentencing law that I was convicted under came under intense scrutiny. This year, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to limit the harsh mandatory minimum sentences associated with low-level crack cocaine offenses. Progress has been made.

    But also since my release, an estimated 5,000 men and women have gone to federal prison each year for a crack cocaine offense. They have been subject to a sentencing structure that the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent judicial body, said applied "most often to offenders who perform low-level trafficking functions, wield little decision-making authority, and have limited responsibility."

    Indeed, I went to prison for being complicit in my abusive boyfriend's crack cocaine trafficking operation. Prosecutors in the case acknowledged that I never sold, handled or used any drugs. Just as Clinton did 10 years ago, Obama should commute the sentences of many people serving egregiously long sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

    When Congress created the crack cocaine sentencing law, it set very low quantities: 5 grams, the weight of two sugar packets; and 50 grams, the weight of a candy bar, to trigger five- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. A defendant charged with a powder cocaine offense would require 100 times the quantity of crack cocaine to receive the same mandatory minimum sentence.