In October 2017, pop culture icon Kim Kardashian-West tweeted for the first time about Alice Johnson, a woman serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for a first-time, non-violent drug offense she had committed two decades prior. Since then, Kim has been an advocate for the release of Alice, meeting with President Donald Trump and many of his advisors to discuss Alice’s case. Finally, after months of campaigning, Trump granted Alice clemency and she was released from prison a few weeks ago.
I do believe that Alice deserved to be freed, especially considering that she only handled low-level operations for a drug trafficking ring to make ends meet after suffering several personal and financial upheavals within a short period of time. However, I can recognize that President Trump is only doing this because Kim Kardashian-West is a celebrity and because her husband, rapper Kanye West, is such a big Trump supporter.
So far, Trump has mainly used his powers to pardon or grant clemency to those who support his political ideologies and who are relatively famous and/or wealthy. For example, he pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man who was so racist that he was convicted of illegally racially profiling Latinx people even after the court told him to stop. Arpaio was a huge supporter of Trump during his campaign, which likely plays a huge role in Trump’s decision to pardon him.
He’s also pardoned well-known conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who was convicted of violating campaign finance laws to try to elect Republican candidate Wendy Long. D’Souza is also a serious supporter of Trump. So it makes sense that, since Kanye West is such a fan of Trump, that he would grant Kim Kardashian’s pleas for him to release Alice Johnson.
Alice Johnson is only being granted clemency by Trump because she gained the attention of Kim Kardashian. If that had not happened, Alice Johnson would have more than likely died in prison, like thousands of others convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.
Some conservatives lauded Trump’s decision, saying that granting clemency to Alice Johnson, a black woman, proved that Trump was not the racist that the “liberal media” had painted him to be. And although it is true that Alice’s clemency was an act of justice, it hardly makes up for how biased Trump is towards racial minorities, especially those in the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system is incredibly biased against people of color, especially African-Americans, with over-policing of predominantly black neighborhoods resulting in the disproportionate arrests of black people for drug crimes, like Alice’s. Black people are also much more likely to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole, especially for nonviolent offenses, just like Alice was. The American Civil Liberties Union found that, of people serving life in prison, black people made up more than half. And when looking at life without parole for nonviolent offenses, that number was above 60%. Trump has not released any current plans to effectively address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Trump has, however, vowed several times to be more “tough on crime”—a phrase that has often carried racial connotations. The “tough on crime” approach has been a justification for the over-policing of non-white neighborhoods that have partially lead to the overrepresentation of minorities in federal and state prisons.
I am very glad that Alice Johnson is now out of prison and able to return to her family, but it’s still important to note that her situation would have played out much differently if her plight had not been noticed by a wealthy, white celebrity with connections to the Trump family. Trump’s clemency for Alice is just a political prop so dealing with real issues in the criminal justice system can remain unsolved.