Alice Marie Johnson is the poster grandma for criminal justice leniency legislation. She spoke last night at the GOP Convention, getting a prime time slot on the final night.
Her speech was powerful and, from what I’ve seen, received good reviews. But the speech was a fraud, and so, to a considerable degree, was Johnson.
It’s fraudulent at several levels to present Johnson as the face of the leniency-legislation-for-criminals movement. For one thing, she isn’t a beneficiary of such legislation. Her sentence was commuted. Commuting sentences is a presidential power. It requires no legislation. President Obama commuted many more than 1,000 sentences on his own.
More generally, grandmas like Johnson aren’t the beneficiaries of leniency legislation, except perhaps in very rare instances. The beneficiaries typically are men who were convicted of felonies in their 20s or early 30s and, thanks to the First Step Act, will be released early, typically when they are in their 30s or 40s.
As for Johnson, she presented herself to the Convention fraudulently. She said she was a first-time non-violent offender who made a mistake. This was misleading in the extreme.
Johnson declined, for obvious reasons, to tell the audience what she was convicted of. In fact, Johnson led a multi-million dollar cocaine ring in the Memphis area. It dealt tons of cocaine for millions of dollars for three years. At Johnson’s trial, the evidence linked her drug ring with Colombian drug lords. She was convicted on cocaine conspiracy and money laundering charges.
This was a first-time conviction, but Johnson should not be viewed as a first time offender. Her cocaine ring was an ongoing enterprise. She destroyed countless lives over a three-year period.
Johnson’s life sentence was not unjust. Even President Obama, who freed many more than 1,000 federal drug felons, chose not to commute Johnson’s life sentence.
Johnson said she redeemed herself in prison. She pointed to various good deeds and the fact that she became an ordained minister. Her redemption would have been more impressive if she had owned up to what she did that landed her in prison, rather than passing herself as a first-time, non-violent offender who just made a mistake.
But if Johnson’s history of good deeds in prison warranted release after 21 years, or if one simply believed that 21 years was enough time served, there was a remedy — commutation. In fact, as I noted above, Johnson got that remedy. Trump commuted her sentence before federal leniency legislation was passed.
Johnson claims that there are many more like her who are still in federal prison, but shouldn’t be. I’m not sure what she means by “like her.” I doubt there are many grandmas in the federal prison population.
Did Johnson mean prisoners with long sentences who have “redeemed” themselves through good works? Given all of Obama’s commutations, I doubt there are many of those, either. But if they are, their sentences can be commuted without new leniency legislation.
The First Step Act isn’t about releasing prisoners who, like Johnson, become ministers, are named Special Olympics coach of the year, and the like. It was mainly an across-the-board reduction of sentences for certain drug felons who hadn’t been convicted yet. They will serve less time regardless of whether they end up “redeeming” themselves or performing any good works.
The “jailbreak” portion of the Act does grant reductions in time based on behavior in prison. But felons don’t need to become ministers or coaches to be released. They just have to attend some classes. There is no meaningful redemption in showing up for yoga class, or whatever.
If Johnson’s BS speech helps Trump get reelected, that’s fine with me. But the speech did not paint a serious, or even an honest, picture of what the leniency for felons movement is about.