You may remember the saga of Kemba Smith, the onetime Hampton University student who in 1995 was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison for her role in a crack cocaine ring led by her abusive drug-dealer boyfriend. He was later murdered; she gave birth to their son while in prison.
Thanks in part to a cover story in Emerge magazine, and the tireless advocacy of her parents, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus and many others, Smith received a commutation six and a half years into her sentence from then-president Bill Clinton in 2000.
Today, more than a decade later, she’s earned a degree, has married and is now Kemba Smith Pradia. With her husband, the Virginia native is living in the Midwest and raising her teenage son and a baby girl.
TheGrio sat down with the activist and public speaker to discuss her new book, the crusade against mandatory minimum sentencing, and a recent trip to Switzerland with the NAACP around the critical issue of voting rights.
TheGrio: Talk about your foundation and the book.
Kemba Smith Pradia: We created my foundation while I was incarcerated. Initially it was about educating youth about not getting caught up in the drug culture and lifestyle. My parents spoke nationally to students who were labeled high risk to prevent them from being in the same circumstance [as me]. Since coming home, I’ve been doing the same thing. I have spoken about a variety of topics including domestic violence, drug policy, re-entry issues and mentoring children with incarcerated parents.
My book is called Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story. There are two sides to my story. One is that there’s this young college student who makes poor choices, gets caught up and later has people coming up to me saying `Are you that girl that was locked up because of that drug dealer you were with?’ But the other side is my story is advocating as far as America’s drug policy gone wrong and the issue of mandatory minimum DRUG sentencing.
The issue of mandatory minimums and the disparity in crack cocaine laws has gained even more attention because in 2010 President Obama signed new drug sentencing reforms into law. Experts say upwards of 12,000 prisoners convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses in America’s drug wars — many of whom are African-American — could gain early release. Talk about this.
When Congress created the crack cocaine sentencing law in 1986, it set very low quantities of drugs to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
If you possessed five grams of crack — about the weight of two sugar packets — that would automatically get you five years. But a defendant who had powder cocaine had to have 100 times that much [500 grams] to receive the same mandatory minimum sentence. The law was unfair and unreasonable.
I was sentenced as a crack cocaine case and it was one of the reasons why my sentence was so severe. The government held me accountable for my boyfriend’s drug ring, even though [prosecutors] said that I never handled, used or sold any of the drugs involved.
The new law establishes an 18 to 1 ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses, but I’m not satisfied. In my opinion, the ratio should be 1:1.
Along with Cong. Maxine Waters, the Open Society Institute, Oxfam, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the NAACP, The Drug Policy Alliance, Sentencing Project and others, we’re still working for that.
There are Americans who believe that anyone involved in drugs has committed a crime and should be locked up for a long time. Your thoughts?
I guarantee you if someone goes to prison it doesn’t take ten, 15 years for people to recognize their poor choices and want to come out and do something better, especially when you are talking about non-violent offenses. `Cause I’m all about personal responsibility and accountability. I’m not one of those people that say, `Oh, I didn’t do anything wrong.’ But the policy needs to be sensible. It hasn’t been sensible. So thank goodness there has been a change.
Part of your activism has focused on women, particularly first time offenders, who have been incarcerated for years with no end in sight.
I want to continuously highlight some of the other injustices that still exist. And there are two women in particular — I met them when I was incarcerated. They’re both first-time drug offenders who have life sentences — that’s cruel and unusual punishment. They have served 18 years so far. Can you imagine waking up every day looking at paperwork with no release date?
They had children that were young. Now they’re grown. Thank God for their strength. But it breaks my heart knowing they didn’t have the same opportunity as I did to see my son grow up. Knowing that there are other women who are still in prison, who have similar stories to mine and whose family members are hurting because of their absence, has been my motivation to fight drug sentencing and drug conspiracy laws. It’s time for these women to come home. I’ve recommitted myself to doing whatever I can to help.
You were part of a NAACP delegation that traveled to Geneva, Switzerland just days ago to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Council. You and others described how a wide range of new legislation across the country threatens to prevent millions of Americans, especially people of color, from exercising their right to vote.
My trip as part of the NAACP delegation was phenomenal. I was deeply moved to be a part of history and meet with high officials on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. They seemed to be really engaged and were in disbelief that our government has such discriminating voter laws that disenfranchise and affect millions.
How did you come to be involved in the voting rights issue?
I wasn’t able to vote in the last presidential election. The last time I was able to vote was in Indiana [last year] when they had their mayoral election.
Where were your voting rights were suspended?
They were suspended in Virginia. In Virginia it’s indefinite until you apply to get your rights restored. You have to had completed your sentence, and supervised release, and you’re subject to a “waiting period” of three to five years. If it’s a drug case it automatically goes to a five-year waiting period. So that’s why when I was living in Virginia I wasn’t even able to apply to get my rights restored until 2010. Because I moved to Indianapolis they had different laws so I was able to vote. And the laws vary from state to state.
Despite receiving executive clemency from Bill Clinton you still have a record?
It’s still a record. I can’t vote, I can’t carry a firearm, not that I particularly want to. There are certain human rights that I’ve lost.
I know you’re grateful for freedom, but how does that end of it — losing voting rights, etc.— make you feel?
Ten years later it still kinda makes me feel like, as much as I do in the community, as good of a parent that I am, wife that I am, involved in the church, that’s still not good enough to the government because I’m still not equal to everyone else. It does bother me to a certain extent, but at the same time I’m not gonna let it hinder me. Once I walked out of those prison walls, I knew that the miracle of freedom that I received wasn’t so that I could disappear. I feel like I must continue to push for fair and sensible drug policy and sentencing, voting rights and other issues.
Do you believe what you’re doing is part of your mission in life?
I feel as if this work is a portion of my life purpose, but I do feel as if God has only shown me a portion of how my story is impacting others. I feel as if there is more for me to do. I’m looking forward to repositioning myself and my career goals as I move forward.