Like Everything Else He’s Done, Trump’s Pardons Are for Him

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By Malia Mackey, Minerva Intern—


As a result of this Mic video and Kim Kardashian’s support, Alice Johnson – a great-grandmother serving a life sentence without parole for a nonviolent, drug-related charge – had her sentence commuted by President Trump.


Accompanying the clemency has been a barrage of tweets, photos, and articles commending the unlikely duo for this moment of humanity. But getting Alice Johnson out of prison was not the only point of Mic’s video. The goal was to encourage meaningful systematic change to reduce over-incarceration. The video sought to highlight the absurd charges against Alice Johnson and ensure that other people in similar situations don’t end up with life sentences.


The Trump-Kardashian duo ignored all of this. Instead, the much-lauded expedited sentence was yet another example of Trump using his power to help himself instead of the nation.


Trump’s pardoning past

Johnson’s publicity-laden early release was not out of character for Trump. Amongst those he has pardoned is controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio – this pinned tweet says everything you need to know about his background. He was pardoned by Trump after being convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court-order in a racial profiling case.


Dinesh D’Souza, conservative author, tweeter, and filmmaker was another granted clemency, after pleading guilty to making illegal campaign contributions.


The only other non-political ally Trump has granted clemency, former heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, was posthumously pardoned for taking his girlfriend across state lines in 1913. This pardon came after Johnson was championed by actor Sylvester Stallone.


Most recently, Trump pardoned the Hammond father-son pair who burned more than 100 acres of federal land. The arrest of the Hammonds inspired a weeks-long anti-government standoff, and this pardon was a nod to such anti-government groups. Just as in his previous five pardons, the president disregarded the typical five-year waiting period and 10,000 preceding clemency applications.


Sensing a theme? Basing clemency on the influence or political leanings of the individuals or their advocates is a flawed method of deciding whose cases are worth taking up. The president is circumnavigating protocol to benefit his image and political standing.


How does he stack up to previous presidents?

Trump’s predecessors also granted clemency to a few incarcerated individuals in the early years of their presidencies. But here’s the catch…theirs weren’t comprised solely of political allies and individuals championed by celebrities while bypassing standard practice.


Chelsea Manning was a prominent person pardoned by President Obama who was convicted of leaking sensitive military and diplomatic information. This pardon was high profile and controversial, as are many of Trump’s. However, this pardon must be put in context. President Obama also quietly issued more than 1,000 commutations (not to be confused with pardons) of people convicted of drug crimes. It’s clear that his clemency was not exclusively reserved for political allies and actions that would build his reputation.


The New York Times distinguished Trump from his predecessors with this, “As he has for all of his acts of clemency since taking office, Mr. Trump bypassed the traditional system for granting pardons and disregarded more than 10,000 languishing applications to focus instead on prominent public figures whose cases resonated with him given his own grievances with investigators.”


This abuse of power sends a powerful message to the incarcerated men and women of America: unless your pardon will help the president look good to his supporters, good luck with your clemency application.


Where do we go from here?

Even if we put the motivations for and the process of Alice Johnson’s pardon aside, it is still fundamentally flawed. Her pardon addresses the needs of one unfortunate person but not the insidious, systemic issue that created her situation in the first place.


I am happy for Miss Johnson. She didn’t deserve to spend 21 years in jail and definitely doesn’t deserve to die there, but I want more. We need more. We need a reformed justice system.


Jennifer Turner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has championed Ms. Johnson’s case recently stated to The New York Times, “I urge the president to do the same for other federal prisoners serving extreme sentences that don’t match the offenses, while reforming our draconian sentencing laws that produce these senseless punishments.”


Trump and our leaders need to stand up for all citizens. First-time non-violent offenders should not be sentenced to life without parole or “living death.” Too many people languish in prison to let these senseless practices continue. 3,278 people are serving life without parole for a nonviolent offense. 79% of these people are nonviolent drug offenders.


If we had a Mic video for every incarcerated person like Alice Johnson, maybe we would see that there are a whole lot of other people in need of a pardon. So, either we can come at this problem on a case-by-case basis, chipping away, or we can go at the cause and advocate for a more sustainable and just solution. Prison reform is beyond due, and we’re seeing some bipartisan hope for change. Alternatives to incarceration are available, yet widely underused due to mandatory minimum sentences.


We can’t be complicit in allowing the president to distort the rule of law and pick winners and losers whenever he needs a proverbial high-five from supporters. Incarcerated people have few advocates and often can’t vote; they are silenced. It’s time for the rest of us to be their voice.


If you’re like me and want to dig into the numbers, check out the ACLU’s report A Living Death on life without parole for nonviolent offenses, or the Brennan Center for Justice’s How many Americans are unnecessarily incarcerated? for more.

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

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