MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) - While Alice Marie Johnson enjoyed her newfound freedom in Memphis Thursday, legal scholars and defense attorneys hoped her commuted sentence will lead to broader awareness and criminal justice reform tied to drug sentencing.
Experts who push for shorter drug sentencing said too many people are locked up too long in jails and prisons nationwide.
They argued the war on drugs isn't working, and questioned why people like Johnson suffered longer sentences than some murderers, rapists, or robbers.
“Overall I think this has been a very positive development,” said defense attorney John Marek.
"I think it's a positive development,” said University of Memphis Law Professor Steve Mulroy.
As Mulroy watched Johnson celebrate with loved ones after her release from prison, he felt optimism and sensed opportunity.
"The system needs reform and it's my hope that there are other people who do not have Kim Kardashian as a champion who will also get relief,” said Mulroy.
"People doing that level of crime do need to do some time but a life sentence seems way overkill,” said Marek.
Before President Donald Trump commuted Johnson's sentence, she spent more than two decades in federal prison carrying out a life sentence without parole for nonviolent drug and money laundering charges.
"We have a system in which people are sentenced to mandatory minimums with harsh sentencing guidelines,” said Mulroy.
Johnson wasn't alone. According to federal corrections data, more than 2,000 federal prisoners are serving life or virtual life sentences because of drug charges.
“It makes no sense to put the amount of people as this country puts into prison,” said Marek.
"I certainly hope it raises consciousness about the number of people languishing in jails with too long prison sentences for low level, non-violent drug offenses,” said Mulroy.
U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant released this statement on the case:
“As United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to faithfully execute and enforce the laws of Congress. Included in our Constitution is the absolute power and authority of the President to grant Executive Clemency relief, and I understand and respect the President’s decision to grant a commutation of Ms. Johnson’s sentence. 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, and we will continue to promote public safety and enforce the rule of law in the Western District of Tennessee by aggressively pursuing such cases.”
There appears to be some bipartisan support in Congress for criminal justice reform, but last month a proposal to roll back some federal mandatory minimum sentences stalled in the Senate.
"Conservatives are starting to come to the table because they are looking at the fine print at 'look how much money we are wasting,” said Marek.
The President can only commute federal sentences. It's up to Governors to address state sentences.
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