Capitol Hill puts special attention on prison sentences 

Kemba Smith Pradia

By Reginald Stuart

WASHINGTON, DC — President Biden sprinkled a dose of holiday cheer upon a few households across the nation this past holiday season with a surprise announcement he was using his executive powers to commute the federal prison sentences of nearly a dozen non-violent federal drug law offenders and to pardon the convictions of hundreds more for marijuana possession and use on federal lands.

Details of Biden’s actions were expected over the coming months and was hailed this week by activists in the calling for reversal of the mandatory minimums, highlighted by a screening of a new movie about Kemba Smith, a Richmond, Virginia college student who became deeply involved as the girlfriend and drug mule of a notorious illegal drugs dealer on the East Coast who was widely sought and placed on the government’s 10 most wanted list. 

The boyfriend was eventually killed in Seattle in a drug-deal gone sour. Shortly before, Smith went back home, pregnant with a baby and surrendered to federal authorities. Soon, she was convicted and sentenced in federal court to 24 and 1/2 years with no chance for parole, despite being a first time, non-violent offender. Smith became a poster child in the early 1990’s, boosting the chorus of people calling for justice in the courts and a reversal of federal mandatory minimum laws. 

In his final weeks in office, then-President Bill Clinton freed Smith, commuting her prison sentence to 6 1/2 years’ time served. He yielded to bi-partisan efforts and appeals from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, private attorneys, the Washington-based Sentencing Project, HBCU leaders and Families Against Mandator Minimums (FAMM) 

The actions by Biden, one of the authors of the tough illegal drug laws of the late 1990’s while in the Senate, represented expansion of on again-off again efforts by Congress and the Justice Department to slow the run -away law and order train led by  politicians of all political stripes. The stiff laws caused thousands of incidental non-violent offenders to be sentenced to federal prisons for much of their adult lives.

Today, there are several million Americans in prisons across the country.  

“This is a positive step forward.” said Smith, now Kemba Smith Pradia, who visited Capitol Hill Monday for a screening of the new movie “Kemba,” hosted Congressman Bobby Scott , D-Va.  Pradia, now spouse and proud mother of two, was accompanied at the movie showing by her mother and father who stuck with her during her ordeal of growing up and their relentless teamwork seeking fair sentencing for the crimes in which she was involved.

More than 400 attended this week’s movie showing in a Congressional meeting hall. On hand were dozens of colleges and high school students, and representatives of myriad organizations that rallied behind efforts to roll back the prison sentences for thousands who had been swept away under the new, tougher federal drug laws. 

Among those on hand were the representatives of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which lead the legal efforts for Kemba, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Divine Nine, an association of major collegiate Greek Letter societies, the LINKS and the National Council of Negro Women. 

 The so-called RICO laws that treat all suspects charged with racketeering in organized crime operations (RICO) regardless of their roles, imposed stiff mandatory drug sentences with parole and eliminated trial judges discretionary sentencing. Kemba Smith was among those receiving tough sentences for her minor roles as a “drug mule.”  The Capitol Hill showing was facilitated by the National Park Service’s 400 Years of African American History Commission.