President Donald Trump on Wednesday commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman from Tennessee who has already served 21 years of a life sentence for charges of cocaine possession and money laundering. None of her charges concerned violent crimes and they represented her first-ever offenses.
Activists have been working to free Johnson for years, but her case picked up steam over the past few months, after Kim Kardashian began advocating for her. Last week, Kardashian met with Trump at the White House to talk about Johnson.
Johnson's case is just one example of a larger issue: Harsh past drug laws have put away for life many non-violent, first-time offenders. Through his administration's clemency initiative, President Barack Obama sought to undo many of these sentences and reduce America's prison population. (Even so, he granted only 5 percent of the requests he received. Johnson had applied to him for clemency three times, but was denied, HuffPost reports.)
It's unclear whether Trump's decision about Johnson signals the start of a larger effort within the administration. The Department of Justice would be in charge of any clemency push and its leader, Jeff Sessions, has put out policy instructing prosecutors to pursue serious sentences against those involved in drug trafficking.
Trump's scattershot history of commutations and pardons doesn't seem to suggest he is interested in systematic criminal justice issues. His past pardons include Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative author charged with campaign finance crimes; Joe Arapaio, an Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt for how he enforced immigration law; and Jack Johnson, a now-deceased black American boxing champion who was unfairly charged under an anti-prostitution law in 1913. Often, celebrity endorsements seem to help: Sylvester Stallone had appealed to Trump on behalf of Jack Johnson's family. Trump seems to relish his pardon power, advisers told the New York Times, and he often circumvents the usual processes to grant them.