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Kemba Smith

Although Kemba Smith had no prior criminal record, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have made her and an increasing number of women casualties of excessive punishments that do not fit their crimes. She was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison for conspiracy to participate in her boyfriend's drug activities.

At the age of 24, Kemba Smith paid the price for loyalty, dearly. In 1994, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine for her boyfriend's drug activities, Kemba, 7 months pregnant at the time, was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

Although Kemba had no prior criminal record, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have made her and an increasing number of women casualties of excessive punishments that do not fit their crimes.

Kemba, raised in a protective, middle-class community near Richmond, Virginia, had spent the previous four years in an abusive relationship with Peter Hall. In 1989, Kemba had met Hall as a 19-year-old sophomore at Hampton University. He was eight years her senior and unbeknownst to Kemba, the leader in a $4 million crack cocaine ring and one of the FBI’s 15 Most Wanted.

Their relationship was a tumultuous one. Kemba would end up making several unsuccessful attempts to leave Hall who abused her physically and emotionally. When Hall was discovered murdered, the government held Kemba accountable for the total amount of the drugs in his drug conspiracy charge.

"I did not traffic in drugs, but I knew my boyfriend did. I knew that while living with him that he did not have a job and we were living off of the proceeds of his drug crimes. I never claimed total innocence and this is the reason why I pled guilty," testified Kemba before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in 2006.

Yet due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the court was unable to take into consideration that Kemba's compliance to participate in Hall's illegal activities, such as delivering money to his associates, were done out of fear for her life. Despite being a first-time, non-violent offender, Kemba was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Like Kemba, a rapidly increasing number of women are given excessive prison sentences as a result of their affiliations with male counterparts where they've served as mules, delivery persons or gofers. Out of a sense of loyalty, many women refuse to testify against husbands and boyfriends. Sadly, abuse among these women is also a growing problem. More than half of the women in state prisons have suffered physical or sexual abuse.

Kemba's story garnered nationwide attention and was prominently featured in campaigns to expose the ills of current drug sentencing policies. For years, Kemba’s parents, who were raising her son while she was incarcerated, galvanized a tireless movement in the media, churches and the criminal justice community seeking clemency for their daughter.  After spending six and half years in prison, Kemba was granted clemency in December 2000 by President Clinton.

Unfortunately, most women do not have access to these kinds of resources. “My burden is that I represent the thousands of others still currently incarcerated; some are my friends who I left behind that deserve an opportunity to raise their children," says Kemba. An estimated 70% of incarcerated women are mothers to children who are minors, affecting an estimated 250,000 children.

Kemba has since earned her Bachelor's degree in Social Work and has received many awards for her advocacy and activism. Currently an advocate, public speaker and student at Howard University's School of Law, Kemba is using her personal story to educate the public of the social, economic and political consequences of our nation's current drug sentencing policies.

For more information on Kemba Smith, visit the Kemba Smith Foundation.

Issue Area(s): Drug Policy, Women