Kemba Smith’s case served as a flash point for many in the early 1990s who were aware of the War on Drugs but were not aware of its harmful effects. Ms. Smith’s case exposed the irrational and unfair nature of federal mandatory sentencing standards, which were applied to people like her, who had no prior offenses or history of violence.
Ms. Smith, like many women around the world, was a victim of domestic abuse by her boyfriend, who was a drug dealer. Because of her fear of being harmed and the inherent difficulty for some victims to leave abusive relationships, she was witness to some of his illegal activity. After her boyfriend was murdered, Ms. Smith was held accountable for her boyfriend’s crimes. In 1994, Ms. Smith was sentenced to 24 years in prison as a nonviolent first-time offender. She was 24 years old.
At the time of her sentencing, Ms. Smith was among the thousands of predominantly Black people who were experiencing the new wave of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws forced federal judges to treat even first-time nonviolent offenders as harshly as individuals with multiple convictions. These standards essentially eliminated the ability for judges to use their discretion and years of experience during the sentencing process. They restricted any consideration of important mitigating factors like the ones at play in Ms. Smith’s case.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund fought for Ms. Smith because it was clear from the outset that the physically abusive nature of her relationship had not been considered. Then Director-Counsel Elaine Jones read about Ms. Smith’s case in Emerge magazine and decided to get involved. LDF challenged Ms. Smith’s sentence and, alongside her family, developed a public education campaign to expose the injustice of excessive sentences for individuals with abusive or deprived circumstances.
In 2000, LDF obtained presidential clemency for Ms. Smith, who was released from prison after serving six and a half years of her sentence. Below, LDF’s then Associate Director-Counsel Ted Shaw is pictured meeting Ms. Smith at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution to reunite her with her family.
LDF’s victory can be attributed to Ms. Smith’s unbelievable resilience, both for herself and for the thousands like her who are still serving excessive prison sentences for minor, nonviolent drug offenses. After her release, Ms. Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and a law degree from the Howard University School of Law.
Kemba Smith is a mother, wife, criminal justice advocate, motivational speaker and author. Her book, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, chronicles her traumatic experience with domestic abuse, injustice, disenfranchisement and re-entry. LDF continues to work with Ms. Smith and The Kemba Smith Foundation to shed light on important criminal justice issues.
HEAR HER VOICE
Listen to Kemba Smith at the NAACP UN Panel on Voting Rights talk about her case, the role LDF played in gaining her freedom, and her conviction’s impact on her right to vote due to state disenfranchisement laws.
MORE ABOUT THIS CASE
Read the full article from Emerge magazine that sparked then Director-Counsel Elaine Jones’ interest in the case and see a letter from her about LDF’s involvement and the importance of Ms. Smith’s ’s fight for justice.