By Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations and Convener of The Justice Roundtable
Celebrities have a major impact on causes they embrace. I first witnessed this while working in the Free South Africa movement during the early 1980s, when tennis giant Arthur Ashe and legendary singer Harry Belafonte led a successful cultural boycott of South Africa. The campaign garnered international attention that helped catalyze the movement that ultimately led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the dismantlement of apartheid. Later efforts by celebrities like pop-music icon Michael Jackson and the rock star Bono have helped transform issues like hunger, poverty, and HIV and AIDS into campaigns that have captured the public’s imagination and ignited change.
So when former model/actress Maria McDonald approached me at a forum on mandatory minimum sentences during last year’s Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, my ears perked up. I thought to myself, why would someone who has graced the covers and pages of Essence, Vogue and Bazaar, been in movies with Denzel Washington, and appeared on Miami Vice, One Life to Live, and Saturday Night Live be interested in mandatory minimum sentences? The answer came as no surprise.
Maria was recently stunned by the discovery that an old friend of hers, William Underwood, had been incarcerated for over 20 years on federal mandatory minimum drug conspiracy charges. She described him as an extraordinary person in the music industry, responsible for discovering, promoting, and managing the careers of several artists during the 1980s. When she discussed Underwood’s plight with her girlfriends in the fashion world, she found that many of them also had loved ones warehoused in prisons under excessively harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Shortly after we met, Maria introduced me to William’s son, Anthony, who provided the inspiration and drive to get celebrities to challenge a common but under-acknowledged crisis occurring in their own backyard.
In less than a month, Anthony galvanized over 100 people connected to the music and entertainment industry who knew and loved his father before his incarceration, and requested that they lend their names to a new national campaign – Celebrities for Justice — initiated by a Washington-based policy coalition, the Justice Roundtable.
Internationally known superstar rapper/dancer M.C. Hammer (pictured) was one of the first to respond. “We are confident,” he stated, “that celebrity attention to cases such as Underwood’s will result in not only his release from a severe life sentence, but also the abolition of senseless sentencing schemes as a whole.”
Underwood has explained his involvement with drugs as one of the only opportunities that he and other young people had to earn money to relieve the crushing deprivation of their Harlem neighborhood. What originally became a way out of poverty unfortunately became a one-way ticket to prison.
In 1990, Underwood received a 20-year concurrent sentence on drug conspiracy charges, and life without parole on a continuing criminal enterprise count. Underwood was not charged or convicted of any offense involving violence, but the government alleged that he supervised a narcotics trafficking gang from 1971 to 1988 that involved heroin distribution and resulted in homicides. The life sentence was the result of a judicial finding by a mere preponderance of the evidence standard that he was a principal administrator, notwithstanding that the alleged conspiracy started when he was only18 years old, and despite a 1986 Federal Bureau of Investigation document stating, “(d)ue to the lack of current updated information concerning [his] alleged activities, this case is being closed at this time.” Underwood contends that during this time he was aggressively pursuing his career in the music industry, and was a frequent, visible presence at major music industry awards, galas, and functions. Tragically, because of major changes in sentencing policy over the years, if Underwood had been convicted in 1990 under the sentencing guidelines that exist today, there is a good chance he would now be a free man.
Challenging the details of criminal cases, however, is not the campaign’s central aim. “The focus of Celebrities for Justice is not guilt or innocence,” emphasized another campaign participant, R&B sensation Johnny Gill. “Our focus is for people like Underwood to return home to their families and serve as a positive influence on their lives and the community as a whole. We want to shine a light on the outrageous sentences they are serving that have no justifiable benefit to society.”
A case in point - Kemba Smith Pradia, the college girlfriend of a drug dealer, was sentenced to 24 years under drug conspiracy laws. As the result of the commutation of her sentence, she was able to return home after serving 6 years, resume the raising of her teen-aged son who was born while she was in prison, and touch countless lives as a motivational speaker. Her recently published memoir, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, chronicles for people across the country the long-term consequences that poor choices can have on young lives.
Michelle West, who was in an abusive “girlfriend” scenario strikingly similar to Kemba’s, was petrified by threats to her mother and daughter and, as a result, rejected the FBI’s ultimatum to cooperate in the investigation of her boyfriend. She is currently serving two life sentences plus 50 years without parole on charges of drug conspiracy and aiding and abetting a drug-related homicide. Hamedah Hasan was pregnant with her youngest daughter when she began serving a 27-year sentence in 1993 on a crack cocaine conspiracy offense. Absent intervention, her daughter will be nearly 30 years old before she is released. These stories merely scratch the surface of the adverse impact of long, counterproductive drug sentencing laws on human lives.
Regardless of whether they devastate the lives of music industry personalities like Underwood or young mothers such as Smith, West and Hasan, college students like Lawrence and Lamont Garrison, or major league baseball players like Willie Mays Aikens, the excessive mandatory sentences that continue to imprison tens of thousands of Americans must be re-examined. Lengthy incarceration has failed to abate or reduce drug trafficking, and has not improved the quality of life in deteriorating neighborhoods. It has, however, destructively removed vast numbers of people, particularly African American men and women, from their families and communities, sometimes for decades, sometimes for life.
Celebrities for Justice will highlight the problems of mandatory sentencing policies and complement the growing movement against mass incarceration in the United States — what some call the “new Jim Crow” — by leveraging the eminence of celebrities with the advocacy of civil rights leaders, criminal justice and drug policy groups, student organizations, religious and faith groups, families, and the formerly incarcerated.
Just as yesterday’s celebrity advocates were influential in the international arena to free Nelson Mandela and demand the end of apartheid, celebrities today must use their influence to champion justice here at home. In his appeal to celebrities, Anthony Underwood, echoing the thoughts of thousands of people with loved ones languishing in prison under harsh sentencing laws, simply stated, “It’s been nearly 25 years; it’s time to bring my dad home.”