Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Welcomes Criminal Justice Reform Advocate as 2016 State of the Union Guest
January 12, 2016
Washington, DC—Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) will be welcoming Kemba Smith, a national advocate for criminal justice reform and founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation, as her guest at tonight’s State of the Union address.
In 1994, Smith was sentenced to 24.5-years in prison with no possibility of parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. After serving 6.5 years of her sentence, Smith was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton. 2016 marks the year that Smith would have been released from prison had she not been granted clemency in 2000. Since her release, she has dedicated herself to the cause of reforming our criminal justice system, and creating opportunities to empower our youth and guide them on pathways to positive choices while encouraging mentorship, through the Kemba Smith Foundation. The organization is committed to educating people of all ages about issues plaguing our communities, including, but not limited to, consequences of drug and alcohol abuse; teen pregnancy; dating violence and abusive behavior, and re-entry of people who have been incarcerated.
“Kemba’s story is unfortunately all too common across the country. 30 years ago in Hawaiʻi, our prison population was under 1,000—last year, it was over 5,500, of which nearly 25% were sent to serve their sentences on the mainland because of prison overcrowding. Our criminal justice system today is unsustainable and ineffective—the United States incarcerates more of our citizens than any other country in the world, with staggeringly high recidivism rates, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “I am honored to welcome Kemba to the U.S. Capitol tonight for President Obama's last State of the Union speech, so that we can further highlight the need for our nation’s leaders to come together and take action on this critical issue. There are many divisive issues that exist within Washington; criminal justice reform is not one of them. We must bring people together—Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers and citizens like Kemba—and waste no time in bringing out sensible criminal justice reform."
“I am grateful to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for inviting me to be her guest and for her pursuit of reform within our broken criminal justice system,” said Kemba Smith. “15 years after my release from federal prison, I will hear President Obama give his final State of the Union address in the very building in which the drug laws were made that ultimately landed me a lengthy prison sentence. Ever since the day I walked out of prison, I have had survivor’s guilt because there were only a handful of other first time, nonviolent offenders who received executive clemency. I hurt for the men and women I left behind who also deserve a second chance at life. My faith carried me through my prison ordeal and as I sit and listen to the president speak, I have the same faith and confidence that criminal justice reform is coming soon.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has long advocated for common sense criminal justice reform legislation like the bipartisan SAFE Justice Act, the Sentencing Reform Act, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, and has encouraged the adoption of successful state reforms at the federal level, like Drug Courts, Veterans Courts, the Hawaiʻi Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), and the State Juvenile Justice Hoʻopono Mamo Civil Citation Initiative.
Kemba Smith is a graduate of Virginia Union University and was a past recipient for a two year Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship for advocates. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her courage and determination to educate the public about the devastating consequences of current drug policies and for her commitment to serving young people. In January 2015, Kemba was appointed a member of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission by Governor Terry McAuliff. She has spoken on panels, testified before Congress and the United Nations regarding a variety of criminal justice issues including: crack cocaine sentencing, mandatory drug sentencing, women and incarceration, felony disenfranchisement, and re-entry. Kemba authored her memoir Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story.