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Telling the World About the Troubled U.S. Criminal Justice System

Racially disparate sentencing patterns and felon disenfranchisement are major problems in U.S.

Kemba Smith is a convicted felon who served nearly seven years on a first-time drug offence before she was granted clemency in 2000. Her origional sentence amounted to 24.5 years. Smith is pictured above offering testimony to the United Nation's Human Rights Committee. 
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Kemba Smith
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Kemba Smith
March 20, 2014, 8:39 p.m.

The In­ter­na­tion­al Cov­en­ant on Civil and Polit­ic­al Rights is a mul­ti­lat­er­al treaty ad­op­ted by the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly in 1966, and in force since 1976. Coun­tries that have signed or signaled sup­port for the agree­ment, such as the United States, com­mit to re­spect the civil and polit­ic­al rights of in­di­vidu­als.

Every five years, the United Na­tion’s Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee re­views com­pli­ance with the terms of the Cov­en­ant. As a part of this pro­cess, non-gov­ern­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions sub­mit re­ports on each coun­try’s per­form­ance. The com­mit­tee began hear­ing testi­mony about the U.S. on March 9 and will con­tin­ue its re­view through March 21. The Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to re­lease their clos­ing ob­ser­va­tions and in­struc­tions to coun­tries at the end of this month.

Is­sues such as felon dis­en­fran­chise­ment, stand your ground laws, and ra­cial dis­par­it­ies in edu­ca­tion have figured prom­in­ently in the testi­mony about the United States offered to the com­mit­tee. (Watch the live stream here).

Kemba Smith is a non-vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­er who served nearly sev­en years in pris­on and was gran­ted clem­ency in 2000. Smith is now a mem­ber of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for the Ad­vance­ment of Colored People’s (NAACP) del­eg­a­tion of­fer­ing testi­mony to the Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee.

Her speech has been re­pub­lished here with the per­mis­sion of the NAACP. It has been ed­ited for clar­ity.

My name is Kemba Smith. I’m a mem­ber of the NAACP Del­eg­a­tion. This is my second time meet­ing with a Deputy High Com­mis­sion­er, but it’s sur­real be­cause my first con­tact with a UN rep­res­ent­at­ive was when a Spe­cial Rap­p­a­tour on do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence came to meet with a se­lect group of wo­men in­side a fed­er­al pris­on.

I was a first time non-vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­er and was sen­tenced to 24.5 years, even though the pro­sec­utor said I didn’t handle, use, or sell the drugs that were in­volved in my case. Dur­ing my sen­ten­cing hear­ing, the judge fell asleep while ex­pert testi­mony was be­ing presen­ted about the ab­use that I en­dured while in a re­la­tion­ship with a drug deal­er. As a do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence sur­viv­or, the spe­cial rap­p­a­tour wanted to hear our stor­ies and to know if we were ex­per­i­en­cing ab­uses from cor­rec­tion­al staff.

I spent 6.5 years in fed­er­al pris­on and in Dec. 2000, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton gran­ted me ex­ec­ut­ive clem­ency. Since my re­lease, I’ve be­come a na­tion­al pub­lic speak­er talk­ing to youth in par­tic­u­lar young wo­men about the drug laws, mak­ing healthy choices, keep­ing edu­ca­tion a pri­or­ity and the im­port­ance of coun­sel­ing to pre­vent the school to pris­on pipeline that’s sweep­ing across Amer­ica.

Over­all, in hind­sight of my pris­on ex­per­i­ence, there are an ar­ray of hu­man rights is­sues that each of these work­ing groups work ex­tens­ively on, that clearly go bey­ond my brief over­view:

Gender Rights

- I gave birth to my son while in­car­cer­ated and had to have my leg hand­cuffed to the bed dur­ing my two-day stay at the hos­pit­al

- I had friends go to se­greg­a­tion [the hous­ing of in­mates in spe­cial units] and be raped by male in­mates

- Hav­ing male of­ficers frisk­ing wo­men in­ap­pro­pri­ately dur­ing ran­dom searches

Crim­in­al Justice/Ra­cial Justice

-There are many oth­er men and wo­men who are first time non-vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­ers with life sen­tences without the pos­sib­il­ity of pa­role and they have already served over 20 years of their sen­tence.

- The ma­jor­ity of these types of cases in­volve people of col­or. The ra­cial dis­par­it­ies with drug sen­ten­cing are alarm­ing and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er has made state­ments in­dic­at­ing there needs to be a change.


- At the fa­cil­it­ies in Cali­for­nia and Con­necti­c­ut in which I was housed, the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion were Black and His­pan­ic. Many of them were fight­ing im­mig­ra­tion laws and faced de­port­a­tion after serving their sen­tence even though they had chil­dren who were born in the U.S. and had no idea when they would be re­united with them.

My pris­on ex­per­i­ence has promp­ted me to be a voice not only for those that are still fight­ing for their free­dom, but also for the over five mil­lion in­di­vidu­als in the U.S. who are dis­en­fran­chised and have per­man­ently been barred from vot­ing for life.

I was one of those in­di­vidu­als when I was here at the U.N. last, but since then I went through an ex­tens­ive ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess and after be­ing out of pris­on 12 years, the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor re­stored my right to vote in Oc­to­ber 2012.

It was dis­heart­en­ing for me to re­col­lect that I had to fill out pa­per­work in my cell to be coun­ted in the U.S. Census so the states could re­ceive fund­ing for my pres­ence, but upon my re­lease, when I pay taxes in the state where I reside, my pres­ence is dis­coun­ted. The right to vote is the corner­stone to any coun­try’s demo­cracy and it’s a ba­sic fun­da­ment­al hu­man right. Should I feel as if I am less than hu­man?

It was only when my vot­ing rights were re­stored that I truly felt I was equal to every oth­er tax-pay­ing cit­izen. This feel­ing should be af­forded auto­mat­ic­ally once a per­son has com­pleted their pris­on sen­tence.

[It is im­port­ant] to be hu­man, to be coun­ted—es­pe­cially [for those of us who] have been con­sidered an in­mate num­ber dur­ing the years of our in­car­cer­a­tion.

Thank you for your time and ef­forts.


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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