Well, what do you say when a couple of the world’s most notorious, self-promoting products and exploiters of the reality TV world get together and do something undeniably nice?
How about “Thank you”?
That’s what I say to President Donald Trump and She-Who-Needs-No-Introduction Kim Kardashian West.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the president granted clemency last Wednesday to Alice Marie Johnson, 63, a Tennessee grandmother who has spent the past 22 years serving a life sentence without parole for cocaine trafficking.
Unlike a full pardon, the commutation will not erase Johnson's conviction. But it will end her sentence.
Trump granted the clemency after hearing a plea from fellow reality TV star Kim in the Oval Office.
Is this legit? Yes. The power belongs to whomever happens to be president. At present that happens to be Trump.
Is Trump using Kardashian West to polish his image among African Americans, the hip-hop community and reality TV fans? Of course. Pleasing constituents is what presidents and other politicians do.
But would that have been a reason for Trump to refuse her plea for clemency? Of course not. Johnson has served more than two decades. That’s a long time for a nonviolent drug offense. In the meantime, she became a model prisoner, according to various accounts. Her clemency should serve as an example to others of the possibility that they, too, can be rehabilitated and redeemed.
Johnson, who became an ordained minister in prison and drew hundreds of thousands of signatures to a petition, has come a long way toward redemption. She was convicted in 1996 on eight criminal counts related to a Memphis-based cocaine trafficking operation. Her 1994 indictment describes dozens of deliveries and drug transactions.
She was forced by economic hardship to turn to the drug trade, she claimed. She had kids and grandkids to feed. But federal courts, including the Supreme Court, rejected her appeals. Prosecutors opposed a motion to reduce her sentence, citing federal guidelines based on the large quantity of drugs involved.
President Barack Obama, who commuted the sentences of hundreds of federal inmates convicted of drug crimes, rejected clemency for her. Conscious of critics nipping at his heels, Obama scrupulously took his time with clemency or pardon requests.
Trump relies on his instincts, turning the review process into another pseudo-reality TV show — “Celebrity Pardons,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod calls it.
I can’t say for certain that the lure of performing a good deed that Obama had not done gave Alice Johnson’s clemency more appeal. But I’m sure it didn’t hurt her chances either.
Rather than criticize Trump’s good deed, I encourage him to do more. Before Trump’s election, reversing the 30-year explosion in our prison population was becoming a bipartisan issue. He could bring that back, if he wants to have a real impact on our criminal justice system.
For his humanitarian aid to Johnson, Trump deserves credit. But he’ll deserve even more credit when he does something to help the nation’s other 576,000 prison inmates — out of a nationwide prison population of almost 1.5 million — whom experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law believe to be incarcerated with little public safety rationale.
That number — 576,000 — comes from a three-year study that the Brennan Center published in December 2016, titled “How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” Releasing these inmates would save $20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers or 327,000 schoolteachers.
Conservatives want to save money. Liberals want to reverse the growth of mass incarceration and other forms of “slavery by another name,” as some historians and civil rights activists call it, since Reconstruction. The elements of a compromise are there for a self-professed savvy dealmaker like Trump to cut a deal, if he wants to do so.
When Trump, at Sylvester Stallone’s suggestion, pardoned the late African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who had been convicted on racially loaded charges 105 years earlier, I was asked sarcastically by some pro-Trump readers, “Why don’t you just say, ‘Thank you’?”
I’m waiting, I responded, to see what the president does for Black people who are still alive.
After Alice Johnson’s clemency, I am now waiting to see what Trump will do to help other unnecessarily incarcerated, nonviolent offenders, even if they don’t have a Hollywood celebrity on their side.