Commentary

Kemba Smith steps up her advocacy for students, ex-offenders

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Kemba Smith, whose case became a primary symbol for the struggle against mandatory minimum prison sentences, is now working to associate her name with another cutting-edge issue: the repeal of a section of the Higher Education Act that blocks thousands of college students from receiving federal aid if they’ve ever been convicted of a drug-related offense. WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Kemba Smith, whose case became a primary symbol for the struggle against mandatory minimum prison sentences, is now working to associate her name with another cutting-edge issue: the repeal of a section of the Higher Education Act that blocks thousands of college students from receiving federal aid if they’ve ever been convicted of a drug-related offense.

“It’s denying people their full citizenship opportunity for higher education,” says Smith, of Richmond, Va. “If they [students] made a mistake, they’re not being afforded an opportunity to continue their education to better themselves.”

The Department of Education reports that 8,461 applicants have been rejected for student aid for the 2002-2003 school year. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., which advocates for fair drug policies, reports that as many as 60,000 students have been denied help since 1998.

That year, the Higher Education Act was amended to withhold federal aid from students or prospective students who had been convicted of a minor drug violation even if they’ve already served their time for the crime.

Smith was recently awarded a Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship for advocates. The two-year grants are made to lawyers, advocates, activists and former prisoners to support national criminal justice reform. It will enable Smith to inspire youth to speak against the nation’s regressive drug policies.

She also hopes to become involved in the treatment of women in prison, convicted felons’ loss of voting rights, conspiracy drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences. She knows a lot about the latter, which led to a 24.5-year prison sentence for her minor roll in a drug ring operated by her late boyfriend, Peter Hall.

Thinking that a confession and testimony that Hall had battered and abused her would win leniency, Smith in 1994 pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, money laundering and lying to authorities.

Her story was championed by Emerge: Black America’s Newsmagazine. After reading the story, Elaine Jones, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, decided to represent Smith in court. Although unsuccessful in having Smith’s case dismissed, LDF asked President Clinton to pardon her.

And he did just that on Dec. 22, 2000. Since her release, Kemba graduated last year from Virginia Union University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and hopes to become a lawyer.

Smith received financial aid in college because she was convicted before the strong anti-drug laws went into affect. That doesn’t lessen her commitment to see the law changed.

“Her story is one that captured a lot of attention,” says Deborah Small, the Drug Policy Alliance’s director of public policy and community outreach. “In our minds as well as the minds of many people, her case is a stark example of the excesses in the war on drugs.”

And there are other examples.

“This law hits home with students,” says Shawn Heller, national director for Students for Sensible Drug Policies, a non-profit advocacy group that has chapters on 200 campuses. “If you commit rape, arson or treason, you can get financial aid. If you have one small pot conviction, you lose your financial aid.”

Students are finding they have support from some unexpected quarters. For example, Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, sides with the students.

“For two years we’ve tried to get it repealed, primarily because we think it’s unfair to students,” Martin says. “We don’t condone people who are dealing drugs. But they don’t realize all the innocent people who get dragged into this who made a mistake. It is unfair to penalize someone 16-or-17 years-old who did something stupid.”

February 17, 2003
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