President Donald Trump’s grant of clemency Wednesday to Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time, nonviolent offender serving a life sentence on drug-related charges was hailed by Johnson’s backers, including Kim Kardashian West, the reality TV star and wife of Kanye West, who has said some nice things about Trump recently.
But Trump’s act of generosity toward Johnson was at odds with his repeated demonization of drug offenders and his administration’s promise to enforce strict punitive measures for those crimes. It also came amid a stalled effort on Capitol Hill to enact a new criminal justice reform bill without meaningful changes to federal sentencing rules. The White House has backed a House bill that does not reform sentencing rules.
Johnson was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole in 1996 after being convicted on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering. The 63-year-old spent 21 years in an Alabama prison before Trump commuted her sentence, citing her good behavior and rehabilitation.
“While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance,” a statement from the White House said.
However, the Trump administration’s policies so far have veered from the idea of a second chance in favor of a more retributive approach.
In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive to federal prosecutors urging them to pursue the most serious provable offense against suspects.
“The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions wrote in the memo.
He also nixed a key part of the Obama-era “Smart on Crime” initiative, which was aimed at reducing the number of defendants charged with non-violent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
According to a 2017 report from the US Sentencing Commission, the possession of certain quantities of drugs – for some types, as little as five grams – triggers an automatic minimum five-year sentence. Those sentences could be increased based on the suspect’s prior record.
The commission found that those convicted in the 2016 fiscal year of crimes carrying mandatory minimum penalties received an average of 110 months – approximately 9 years – in prison. That was four times the average sentence – a bit over 2 years – for those convicted of a crime without the mandatory minimum. The report noted that almost 56% of the federal prison population between 2010 and 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum, and almost 43% remained subject to that penalty at sentencing. The majority of those sentenced under mandatory minimums were people of color.
Moreover, the rhetoric from the President himself tends to focus on a retributive, hardline approach to drug crimes.
“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time,” Trump said during a rally in March, suggesting the potential for the death penalty in serious cases.
Later that month, Trump officially proposed the punishment for prolific dealers.
“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Trump said in the speech Manchester, New Hampshire. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
The proposal, which was slammed by treatment advocates, law enforcement officials and civil liberty organizations, would be reserved for “big pushers,” Trump said.
Days later, Sessions reminded federal prosecutors of their ability to pursue the death penalty for serious drug crimes.
“Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes,” Sessions said in a statement. “I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.”
There’s no indication that outlook will change after the Johnson clemency.
US Attorney Michael Dunavant after the commutation that he understands and respects Trump’s decision in this case.
However, he noted that “vigorous and consistent federal prosecution of violations of the Controlled Substances Act, including major drug trafficking organizations and money laundering schemes, are a top priority of this office and the Department of Justice.”
“We will continue to promote public safety and enforce the rule of law in the Western District of Tennessee by aggressively pursuing such cases,” Dunavant said.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Dan Merica, and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.