During the past two weeks, in response to successful grassroots campaigns, two governors have released Black Americans who had been railroaded by our nation’s criminal justice system.
Together, these cases speak to the urgent need for the work the NAACP and our allies are doing to encourage more governors to use their clemency authority as our nation’s founding fathers intended by freeing more deserving people more frequently.
The most recent victory is that of Jamie and Gladys Scott, two Mississippi sisters who have been imprisoned for 16 years on double-life sentences. They were each condemned to this extraordinary sentence as teenagers for a first-time offense in which $11 was stolen and no one was hurt. The Scott sisters were convicted of luring two men to be robbed by three teenage boys. The boys each received eight years and served less than three. Moreover, there are compelling reasons to believe the sisters are innocent. Their case has become increasingly tragic and urgent over the years. While in prison, Jamie has lost use of both her kidneys.
At Thursday’s press conference for the Scott sisters, I praised Gov. Barbour for his decision to release both sisters from prison:
“This is a shining example of the way clemency power should be used. Gov. David Paterson did it last week in the John White case. Now Gov. Barbour. We hope next will be the governor of Georgia in the John McNeil case. These are important cases, and it’s important governors realize that they have a role to play in advancing justice.”
As the Scott sisters’ lawyer, Chokwe Lumumba, has observed, we are further heartened that by indefinitely suspending their sentences, Barbour is taking the same first step he took in each of the cases he later pardoned.
Many have objected to Barbour attaching a condition to Gladys Scott’s release that she follow through on her promise, long blocked by the Mississippi penal system, to donate her kidney to her sister.
We share these concerns. We would fight anyone who ever tried to activate such a clause and we would win.
Attorney Lumumba has noted what many legal scholars have also observed: “We are much better off with Gladys out of prison on a condition that is constitutionally unenforceable than behind bars in a prison that repeatedly refused to let her help her sister. Not only has the governor’s office assured us that they will never enforce this clause, they couldn’t do it if they wanted to.
“Why he let them out is an argument for historians, getting people like them out is what we have to be about.”
Our eyes remain firmly focused on the prize: assisting the Scott sisters in getting the freedom they have won, the health care they need and the pardon they deserve.
The victory of their release encourages us to press on in our nationwide efforts to convince more governors to use their clemency powers to free more people who desperately deserve it.
Like the struggle to win justice for the Scott sisters, the struggle for full and fair usage of clemency powers is as urgent as it has been long. For more than a century, the NAACP has pushed governors and presidents publicly and privately to use their clemency powers to advance justice. Yet, the roots of this struggle go much deeper.
Alexander Hamilton predicted in Federalist Paper No. 74 that without “easy access” to clemency, our nation’s justice system and democracy would not work properly. “The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”
In addition to dealing with a justice system that has indeed become “too sanguinary and cruel,” we are also confronting one that is grossly overcrowded with Americans of all colors (especially Black men and women), and leaders who are too fearful to do much about either aspect of the problem. Ten years ago, I played a small role in helping free Kemba Smith–a young Black woman sentenced to more than 20 years on drug conspiracy charges despite her prosecutor’s own admission that Ms. Smith had never used, sold nor benefited from the sale of drugs. When I met with President Clinton about the case, it was clear he had studied her case and understood why she deserved freedom. He commuted her sentence a few months later as he left office.
As Kemba Smith has often said, her case is remarkable not because there are so few “Kemba Smiths” in our justice system (there are thousands), but rather because there are so few commutations for people who deserve them.
Gladys and Jamie Scott’s freedom is just as rare and precious. Let’s keep this movement growing by ensuring the pleas of others who deserve clemency are heard, and they are set free.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the NAACP.