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Criminal justice reform in the era of reality TV-style government

Criminal justice reform in the era of reality TV-style government
© Twitter/@RealDonaldTrump

Kim Kardashian West, criminal justice warrior? It was hard enough keeping up with the Kardashians when they were merely selling fashion. Now that the family’s most famous member has procured presidential clemency for a 63-year-old Memphis grandmother, criminal justice reform might become fashionable. That’s not a bad thing if it causes the POTUS, America’s biggest reality TV star, to reform the country’s overcrowded jails.

Kardashian West, who has spoken out on behalf of Black Lives Matter, chanced upon a video on Twitter in October 2017 showing first-time drug offender Alice Marie Johnson serving life in prison without parole since 1996. Johnson was one of about 3,300 such offenders imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Crucially, 65 percent of these prisoners are black. Moved by Johnson’s predicament, Kardashian West tweeted about the unfairness of her sentence. She could have moved on, then, like the other 7 million viewers of the viral video.

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Instead, she engaged a defense lawyer to help Johnson and campaigned for her release, eventually securing a May 30 meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE to talk about not just Johnson’s case but prison reform and sentencing. Last week, the president freed Johnson, explaining that his administration will “always be very tough on crime [but] those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”

 

Contrary to popular belief, Johnson’s release was not secured on a whim. As Kardashian West explained to CNN: “I have [had] daily phone calls with the White House. Maybe a dozen emails a day trying to get letters, letters from the warden. ... I did step in late in the game. ...[Alice’s team’s been] working on this for three years.”

In a subsequent statement to Mic, she indicated this case may not be a one-off: “To go and spend my money buying material things doesn't satisfy me the way it used to. … If I could put the money ... to save someone’s life and do it once a year, that would make my heart fuller.” That outlook would leverage her celebrity to the greater good.

Cynics might claim that Trump was influenced by his unlikely recent bromance with Kanye West, Kardashian’s husband, who has generated controversy by publicly embracing the president with tweets such as: “You don’t have to agree with Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy.”

It might be a mistake to accept such a facile narrative in relation to an unpredictable president. Trump has a way of publicly staking out a hostile position and then reversing course to seek compromise. And on many social issues, he has backed progressive causes.

For example, he has been a vocal critic of NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutalities against African Americans. Critics have denounced Trump’s position as racist. But last week, he asked athletes to recommend to him “people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system” — remarks hint at his desire to pardon others.

America has a massive over-incarceration problem, jailing more people than any other country by many multiples. Solutions include releasing nonviolent offenders and making greater use of alternatives to jail such as electronic tracking devices, when appropriate. Clearly, the problem of prison overcrowding and systemic biases against African Americans cannot be solved by presidential pardons alone.

Nonetheless, Trump’s attention to these issues might help drive reforms through legislation and prosecutorial decisions. Significant criminal justice reforms are necessary, beginning with addressing the root causes of offending, which include mental illness and lack of family, education, employment and/or social opportunities.

Many nonviolent offenders could be released from prison. Jailing someone is about five times more expensive than 24-hour GPS monitoring. But reform is not restricted to releasing prisoners. Repeat violent offenders must receive severe punishment and not be released based on speculative beliefs about rehabilitation. They must bear the onus of providing overwhelming evidence for lower sentences; mere self-serving claims are insufficient.

We live in an era of celebrity, with social media platforms that facilitate pro-social activity. Some celebrities embrace this opportunity and champion their pet causes, occasionally with good outcomes. To be sure, every cause and every prisoner deserving support will not obtain a celebrity champion. And, celebrity interventions can short-cut existing processes and create their own fairness problems.

Still, the example that Kardashian West has set with the case of Alice Marie Johnson is a model that might assume more importance in this reality TV-era of government. To that end, advocating for a more equal society while selling branded clothing could do more good than harm.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.