Just when I was set to criticize Kim Kardashian West for wasting her celebrity clout on the low-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform–seeking a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a 62-year-old grandma locked up for life in Alabama on a nonviolent drug charge–I learned that KKW is also advocating for clemency for Cyntoia Brown, who’s doing a life sentence for murder.
Of course, that’s the same Cyntoia Brown who was raped and forced into sex work when she was 16, shot and killed a client nearly three times her age in self-defense, and was then tried as an adult–all circumstances that virtually negate the purported crime, or at least make Cyntoia one of the most sympathetic murderers in modern history.
So, I guess I’m back to being critical.
My beef, of course, isn’t with Alice Johnson or Cyntoia Brown, the latter of whom has a clemency hearing set for May 23. Both women, having served nearly 35 years combined, deserve to go home. And I’m not mad at Kim, either, for jumping on the bandwagon kickstarted by Rihanna. There are far worse things she could do with her AAA-list juice card than lobby Jared Kushner to help free two women of color.
My problem with Kim–besides her husband’s privileged delusions–is that campaigning for Brown and Johnson is, literally, the least she could do to try and change the system. Alice Johnson and Cyntoia Brown are representative of a small portion of the overall prison population that many reform advocates and academics call “the non-non-nons”–people in the system who are non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders. Basically, the categories of people currently incarcerated–along with women, in general–most Americans seem to agree shouldn’t be locked up.
But did you know there are only about 50,000 people across the country incarcerated for just drug possession? (In Arizona, only 8.8% of the state prison population is doing time for possession as their most serious crime.) Did you know that the number of people committing nonviolent property crimes in the U.S. today is roughly the same number it was more than 50 years ago? Or that less than 10% of the prison population is women? If we released the so-called “non-non-nons” tomorrow, our state and federal prisons would still incarcerate most of the people they do today.
More than half of all state prisoners nationally are doing time for something categorized as “violent”. Which is why–if we really want to bring an end to mass incarceration–we must talk more about releasing people convicted of violent crimes. On that note, we need to consider–as the Justice Policy Institute has already done for us–how we define violence. We need to talk about the 7.5 million more guns produced annually than there were just over a decade ago, and how that contributed to the nearly 1,100 gun-related deaths in Arizona in 2016. And people who still unequivocally support sending every single violent offender to prison must admit that prison does nothing to solve violence.
We need to have the difficult conversations between survivors and those who commit harm-who are, often, one and the same. We need to acknowledge that most violent offenders typically “age out” of crime, that violence is a stage of life, not a state. And, finally, we all need to concede-and accept-that a small percentage of the most violent offenders will re-offend. But that’s no reason to continue the insanity of the current system.
I certainly appreciate what Kim Kardashian West is doing for Cyntoia Brown and Alice Johnson. I hope more celebrities like Kim, Rihanna, and LeBron James continue to flirt with social justice and step up in support of criminal justice reform. But I guess I want Kim and celebrities like her to do something a little less safe, something that muddies their brand.
To me, Kim’s only doing about as much as politicians do across America every legislative session: They work to get a few people out of prison about five minutes early, and then call it “reform”.
—Joe Watson, AFSC-AZ Research & Social Media Consultant