Trump's Commutation of Alice Johnson's Sentence Is a Critical Part of Prison Reform

This combination photo shows President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Moon Township, Pa., on March 10, 2018, left, and Kim Kardashian West at the NBCUniversal Network 2017 Upfront in New York on May 15, 2017. Kardashian West arrived at the White House for a meeting with presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law. She has urged the president to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who is serving a life sentence without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

This combination photo shows President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Moon Township, Pa., on March 10, 2018, left, and Kim Kardashian West at the NBCUniversal Network 2017 Upfront in New York on May 15, 2017. Kardashian West arrived at the White House for a meeting with presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. She has urged the president to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who is serving a life sentence without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

 

A little earlier today, President Trump commuted the life sentence of a 61-year-old woman named Alice Marie Johnson (see other RedState posts on this here and here). Ms. Johnson had served 21 years of a sentence of life without parole. She was a non-violent first offender.

Trump has taken some heat for this commutation because it was brought to his attention by Kim Kardashian West. She, in turn, took up the cause based on this video.

Indeed, after the flogging Kardashian’s husband, Kanye West, took for getting too close to Trump, I think Kardashian showed a lot more guts than I’d imagined possible by taking this route.

But the decision was right and just.

From the late 17th Century until 1823 (The Judgment of Death Act), Britain was under a legal system known as “The Bloody Code.” In 1688, there were 50 crimes punishable by death. By 1800, the number had risen to 220 capital offenses. These were not discretionary punishments, these were mandatory death sentences. The laws were enacted to deal with civil unrest and economic dislocation but the result was that children as young as 12 were hanged for minor thievery. The system would have been unsustainable had there not been an official outlet in the form of reprieve granted on behalf of the monarch.

For instance, in the May 1832 session at Old Bailey, 17 prisoners were sentenced to death (keep in mind this was after the death penalty was made discretionary for all crimes except murder and treason. All the cases were forwarded to the Privy Council for review and one man, a career burglar, was hanged. The remainder took the slow boat to Van Diemen’s Land. This system let society express its displeasure, give criminals some bowel loosening moments as they waited to hear if they were to die or not, and didn’t brutalize society in the process.

We’ve created something of a Bloody Code of our own in our Drug War. In fact, with the blink of an eye (see Title IX tribunals on campus and the recall of a California judge yesterday because he followed his judgment and experience rather than listen to the mob howling for blood) basically any crime can become life ending if there is enough outrage whipped up. And we are vengeful. Truth in sentencing laws, which sound great, have essentially eliminated parole and early release in the federal and some state systems and, ironically, removed, or severely limited, an incentive of good behavior. We combine that with a technology that lets employers check backgrounds of potential employees and a litigation system that makes the hiring of ex-cons a bet-your-business activity and we have created a perfect storm for long prison sentences, no rehabilitation attempted, and finding a job outside damned difficult and we are shocked at the recidivism.

Without the aggressive use of pardon, parole, and commutation, we’ve created a system that is no more sustainable than Britain’s Bloody Code. But, just as the need for executive clemency has reached a crisis point, our presidents and governors have become so terrified of being labeled “soft on crime” or accused of “not supporting law enforcement” that they ignore clemency until days before they leave office. And without the use of clemency, the prison reform effort is dead. Because without clemency the key element in punishment, mercy, is missing and the judicial system becomes a industrial process of retribution for no greater end than that retribution.

I have no doubt that Trump has ulterior motives with his recently discovered love of the pardon. But I think he may come to start doing the right thing as a habit even if he did start out doing it from self-interest. No matter what his motive here, he righted an injustice that we should be appalled ever happened in our name. And, hopefully, other chief executives will see the sky did not fall and they will follow his example.