- - Thursday, June 28, 2018


President Trump had a visit from Kim Kardashian recently, brought to the White House by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, resulting in a grant of clemency to an imprisoned “first-time, non-violent” drug-offender. According to press accounts, Alice Marie Johnson was a model prisoner, had become a devout Christian while in prison, had prayed extensively that her unfair and unjust nightmare might soon be over, and was looking forward to spending Mother’s Day with her family.

The president’s compassion was particularly evident as Mrs. Johnson, a 63-year-old black great-grandmother, had received a life sentence in 1997 and had been in prison ever since. At first glance, she met all the criteria so often cited by advocates of ending the claimed “mass incarceration” of African-American low-level drug offenders.

It is hard to fault the president’s apparent compassion for Mrs. Johnson. Keeping her in prison for the remainder of her life would probably pay few benefits to anybody. It is unlikely, at her age, that she will commit another drug offense and the cost to the taxpayers of keeping her, and tens of thousands of such offenders in federal prison is substantial. But it is easy to fault the president — and we do — for deceiving the public into thinking that Mrs. Johnson, and others like her, are incarcerated unjustly.

In fact, Mrs. Johnson was a principal ringleader in a massive Colombian cocaine distribution conspiracy for several years in the early 1990s. She was convicted, by a federal jury, of possessing and distributing cocaine and money laundering, and sentenced to life in prison.

Her conviction was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which, in a painfully thorough review of the facts, affirmed the conviction, writing that “The jury found that Johnson controlled the Memphis end of the conspiracy and directed the distribution of thousands of kilograms of cocaine, as well as controlling shipment of millions of dollars of drug proceeds back to Houston to the Colombians who controlled the source of the cocaine.”

She hired the mules to transport cocaine from Houston, she rented the apartment that was the center of the operation, and she collected and disbursed millions of dollars for the cocaine delivered to her. Her telephone records showed nearly 3,000 phone calls to three other members of the conspiracy. In other words, she was hardly an innocent minor bystander in somebody else’s drug ring.

Mrs. Johnson was only a first offender because she was only arrested, and convicted, once. The arrest came years into the conspiracy, not exactly after she committed a single drug offense.

The Rand Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center estimates that the social costs of one kilogram of cocaine is about $215,000. If Mrs. Johnson was responsible, therefore, for the distribution of only 1,000 kilos, the social costs would be $215 million. But according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Mrs. Johnson received 40 to 50 kilograms of cocaine nearly every week for a period of four years, returning millions of dollars to the mules who brought the cocaine from Texas, much of which would be sent back to the Colombian drug cartels to continue the cycle.

How many people died because of Mrs. Johnson’s efforts is impossible to know. During her business years — the early 1990s — the violent and ruthless Colombian cocaine mafia, the source of her inventory, was in full swing, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Colombians. Most of the U.S.-bound cocaine came through Mexico during Mrs. Johnson’s drug-trade career, resulting in countless violent deaths and mayhem.

And in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were more than 4,000 deaths from cocaine consumption per year. As for the lives, families and careers destroyed because of the thousands of kilos of cocaine she distributed? Too many to count. Add to that the violent crime that was undoubtedly connected to the street distribution of those thousands of kilograms of cocaine spread across the Southeastern United States, and the total cost to society, to the victims and the taxpayers caused by this “first time, non-violent” drug offender grandmother must be astronomical.

Under the Kardashian-Kushner-Trump reasoning, the president might grant clemency to non-violent first offender Bernie Madoff. Although Madoff was fraudulently extracting money from people for dozens of years, he only got caught once, pleaded guilty to several felonies and was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison, where, at 80, he remains.

He is apparently a model prisoner and unlikely, at his age, to go back to the financial business. His client list, which numbered in the thousands, was far fewer than that of Mrs. Johnson, and anyway, it is estimated that half his clients actually made money. More money went through his fingers than through Mrs. Johnson‘s, but the only person who died was Madoff’s son, who committed suicide. But the optics surrounding a Madoff pardon would not, one suspects, be well received.

Legislation pending in Congress is designed to reform the federal prison system. A key part of such reform is releasing drug-involved non-violent first offenders. If Alice Marie Johnson is representative of the offenders who will be released, the law should at least require that the public be fully informed of what crimes they actually committed, the real cost to their victims and the cost to the American people.

Alfred S. Regnery is chairman of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. He served in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration.

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