The Kemba Smith Story and the Injustice of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

By Diana Block
Kemba Smith is a young African-American woman serving 24.5 years in prison for playing a small role, under duress, in a drug distribution ring headed by her former boyfriend. When Kemba was a sophomore in college, she became involved with a man who violently abused her. When he saw Kemba talking to another man, he choked her until she thought she was going to die. At other times, he beat her so hard that she had to get medical help. This man was also a cocaine dealer and, under physical threat, Kemba began to carry money and weapons for him.
In 1994, Kemba was indicted as a member of a cocaine distribution conspiracy (her boyfriend was murdered and so was never tried). Kemba was a first-time offender, with no previous record. She was also a battered woman and her attorney was able to demonstrate at her trial that her actions clearly occurred
under coercive threats to her and her family. Many letters were written by community leaders who knew Kemba to plead for leniency. Despite all this, the judge held Kemba responsible for all the drugs covered by the indictment, even though she had never handled or used the crack cocaine involved in the case. She was sentenced to 24.5 years, the mandatory minimum sentence.
Kemba Smith is one of thousands of African-American women and men who are being put in prison for most of their adult lives because of mandatory minimums. Research has shown that Blacks and Latinos receive mandatory minimums at a much greater rate than whites. Her sentence highlights the disparity between the laws regulating crack cocaine and those for powder cocaine. Her case also shows how the judicial system makes victimized women pay for the battering and abuse they suffer.
Kemba has already served thirty-six months in prison. She needs to be home with her two and a half year old son and her family. A major letter writing and petition campaign has been launched to support her release. Send letters to President Clinton, Janet Reno and Federal senators and congresspeople. For more information about Kemba’s case, write Kemba Smith Youth Foundation, POB 2455, Richmond, VA 23218.
Write Kemba at Kemba Smith, #26370-083, Pembroke Station, Danbury, CT 06811.