My View

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. 
National Journal
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.

Im­mig­ra­tion

- 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.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICAS

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@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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