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My life saved by reprieve of 24-year sentence for crack

By Kemba Smith Pradia, Special to CNN
  • Writer served seven years of 24-year sentence for crack cocaine before clemency
  • Since then, Kemba Smith Pradia graduated from college, married, had two kids, set up foundation
  • Pradia: Crack sentences extreme, harsher than powder cocaine, hurt low-level users
  • President should commute sentences for those serving excessive jail terms, she says

Editor's note: Kemba Smith Pradia has received awards for her efforts to educate the public about the social, economic and political consequences of drug policies. She received a Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship for advocates and is developing the Kemba Smith Foundation.

Indianapolis (CNN) -- Ten years ago, days before Christmas, President Bill Clinton changed my life forever. I was in federal prison, serving the seventh year of a 24-year sentence for a first-time nonviolent crack cocaine offense.

Clinton's mercy and acknowledgement that my sentence was unjust led him to grant me a commutation. Had he not done so, I would be in prison until 2016. On December 22, the anniversary of my release, I will join others in a fast for justice to honor those in prison who deserve the same relief from their long sentences for low-level drug offenses.

Many things have changed in the last decade. I graduated from college, attended law school, got married, raised my son who was born while I was incarcerated and gave birth to a daughter. I also established my own foundation to give hope to children of incarcerated parents.

At the same time, the sentencing law that I was convicted under came under intense scrutiny. This year, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to limit the harsh mandatory minimum sentences associated with low-level crack cocaine offenses. Progress has been made.

Prosecutors in the case acknowledged that I never sold, handled or used any drugs.
--Kemba Smith Pradia

But also since my release, an estimated 5,000 men and women have gone to federal prison each year for a crack cocaine offense. They have been subject to a sentencing structure that the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent judicial body, said applied "most often to offenders who perform low-level trafficking functions, wield little decision-making authority, and have limited responsibility."

Indeed, I went to prison for being complicit in my abusive boyfriend's crack cocaine trafficking operation. Prosecutors in the case acknowledged that I never sold, handled or used any drugs. Just as Clinton did 10 years ago, Obama should commute the sentences of many people serving egregiously long sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

When Congress created the crack cocaine sentencing law, it set very low quantities: 5 grams, the weight of two sugar packets; and 50 grams, the weight of a candy bar, to trigger five- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. A defendant charged with a powder cocaine offense would require 100 times the quantity of crack cocaine to receive the same mandatory minimum sentence.

Obama should commute the sentences of people serving egregiously long sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
--Kemba Smith Pradia

Fortunately, this year Congress recognized that the 1986 law had failed to target drug kingpins and traffickers. More than 60% of crack cocaine defendants have been low-level offenders, such as street-level sellers, lookouts or couriers. Many of them have stories similar to mine and have the potential to contribute great things to their families and communities.

One example of the thousands serving an unjust sentence is Hamedah Hasan. She is a mother and grandmother, now serving the 17th year of a 27-year sentence for a nonviolent and low-level crack cocaine offense.

She had fled a physically abusive relationship to live with her cousin in Nebraska. Once she arrived, she realized that he was involved in a major drug operation. She ran minor errands for her cousin in exchange for having a roof over her head and the chance to escape her violent boyfriend.

Her sentencing judge is among her most ardent supporters. In a letter to the president, U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf said, "I can say, without equivocation, that Ms. Hasan is deserving of the president's mercy." Hasan filed a commutation petition on Presidents Day.

That there was bipartisan support for crack cocaine sentencing reform this year, a time of heightened political discontent, is a testament to the intolerable nature of these excessive sentences. But the Fair Sentencing Act is not retroactive, and so it does not help anyone serving time today under the law that both Congress and the president agree is unfair. This cruel treatment should not be allowed to continue, and my experience should serve as an example.

Through the power of commutation, Obama can provide relief to prisoners serving excessive sentences. While the president's clemency track record is bleak -- he has yet to issue any commutations since taking office -- I am hopeful he will see that justice requires his attention and that changing the lives of men and women in prison deserves his action.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Kemba Smith Pradia.