Telling the World About the Troubled U.S. Criminal Justice System

Racially disparate sentencing patterns and felon disenfranchisement are major problems in U.S.

Kemba Smith is a convicted felon who served nearly seven years on a first-time drug offence before she was granted clemency in 2000. Her origional sentence amounted to 24.5 years. Smith is pictured above offering testimony to the United Nation's Human Rights Committee.  (National Journal)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, and in force since 1976. Countries that have signed or signaled support for the agreement, such as the United States, commit to respect the civil and political rights of individuals.

Every five years, the United Nation's Human Rights Committee reviews compliance with the terms of the Covenant. As a part of this process, non-governmental organizations submit reports on each country's performance. The committee began hearing testimony about the U.S. on March 9 and will continue its review through March 21. The Human Rights Committee is expected to release their closing observations and instructions to countries at the end of this month.

Issues such as felon disenfranchisement, stand your ground laws, and racial disparities in education have figured prominently in the testimony about the United States offered to the committee. (Watch the live stream here).

Kemba Smith is a non-violent drug offender who served nearly seven years in prison and was granted clemency in 2000. Smith is now a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) delegation offering testimony to the Human Rights Committee.

Her speech has been republished here with the permission of the NAACP. It has been edited for clarity.

My name is Kemba Smith. I'm a member of the NAACP Delegation. This is my second time meeting with a Deputy High Commissioner, but it's surreal because my first contact with a UN representative was when a Special Rappatour on domestic violence came to meet with a select group of women inside a federal prison.

I was a first time non-violent drug offender and was sentenced to 24.5 years, even though the prosecutor said I didn't handle, use, or sell the drugs that were involved in my case. During my sentencing hearing, the judge fell asleep while expert testimony was being presented about the abuse that I endured while in a relationship with a drug dealer. As a domestic violence survivor, the special rappatour wanted to hear our stories and to know if we were experiencing abuses from correctional staff.

I spent 6.5 years in federal prison and in Dec. 2000, President Clinton granted me executive clemency. Since my release, I've become a national public speaker talking to youth in particular young women about the drug laws, making healthy choices, keeping education a priority and the importance of counseling to prevent the school to prison pipeline that's sweeping across America.

Overall, in hindsight of my prison experience, there are an array of human rights issues that each of these working groups work extensively on, that clearly go beyond my brief overview:

Gender Rights

- I gave birth to my son while incarcerated and had to have my leg handcuffed to the bed during my two-day stay at the hospital

- I had friends go to segregation [the housing of inmates in special units] and be raped by male inmates

- Having male officers frisking women inappropriately during random searches

Criminal Justice/Racial Justice

-There are many other men and women who are first time non-violent drug offenders with life sentences without the possibility of parole and they have already served over 20 years of their sentence.

- The majority of these types of cases involve people of color. The racial disparities with drug sentencing are alarming and Attorney General Eric Holder has made statements indicating there needs to be a change.


- At the facilities in California and Connecticut in which I was housed, the majority of the population were Black and Hispanic. Many of them were fighting immigration laws and faced deportation after serving their sentence even though they had children who were born in the U.S. and had no idea when they would be reunited with them.

My prison experience has prompted me to be a voice not only for those that are still fighting for their freedom, but also for the over five million individuals in the U.S. who are disenfranchised and have permanently been barred from voting for life.

I was one of those individuals when I was here at the U.N. last, but since then I went through an extensive application process and after being out of prison 12 years, the Virginia governor restored my right to vote in October 2012.

It was disheartening for me to recollect that I had to fill out paperwork in my cell to be counted in the U.S. Census so the states could receive funding for my presence, but upon my release, when I pay taxes in the state where I reside, my presence is discounted. The right to vote is the cornerstone to any country's democracy and it's a basic fundamental human right. Should I feel as if I am less than human?

It was only when my voting rights were restored that I truly felt I was equal to every other tax-paying citizen. This feeling should be afforded automatically once a person has completed their prison sentence.

[It is important] to be human, to be counted--especially [for those of us who] have been considered an inmate number during the years of our incarceration.

Thank you for your time and efforts.


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