*After being lobbied by Kim Kardashian West, President Donald Trump has commuted the lifetime prison sentence Alice Marie Johnson, one of many people of color behind bars for life because of a nonviolent drug offense. Trump’s action comes just days after he met with Kardashian West, at the White House to discuss prison reform.
Johnson is a 63-year-old black woman from Tennessee who was sentenced to life in prison for the first-time offense.
In 1993, Johnson was arrested after working with a group of people who transported cocaine. She said her involvement stemmed from hitting rock bottom in her personal life: In the early 1990s, she had gone through a divorce, a bankruptcy that led her to lose her house, and her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
However, Johnson has maintained that she never actually sold or dealt drugs, and that her role in the group was that of a “telephone mule” who passed messages along. Nevertheless, she was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine and money laundering, which led to a sentence of life plus 25 years in federal prison — despite it being her first offense.
Kardashian West took special interest in Johnson’s case back in October. Since then, she recruited her lawyer Shawn Holley to help Johnson’s clemency campaign and met with Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner to discuss the possibility of a pardon. After meeting the president in late May, Kardashian West tweeted:
“I would like to thank President Trump for his time this afternoon. It is our hope that the President will grant clemency to Ms. Alice Marie Johnson who is serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense.”
She added, “We are optimistic about Ms. Johnson’s future and hopeful that she —and so many like her — will get a second chance at life.”
Mass incarceration is one the United States’s most urgent problems, particularly for people of color: America makes up about 5% of the global population but has about 21% of the world’s prisoners. For example, Black and white people use drugs at a similar rate, but the imprisonment rate for Black folks is more than five times the rate of white people.
President Barack Obama pardoned 231 individuals, many who had similar drug-related charges to those of Johnson’s, in December 2016. It’s unclear why she wasn’t in the group.
So far, Trump has issued a half dozen pardons, including to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff known for violating the civil rights of people of color who was convicted of contempt of the court last year; Irve Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007; and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations back in 2014.