Book Review on Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story.

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Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story Book Review

Book Review on Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story
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Introduction

The book, “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story”, was written by Kemba Smith and Monique W. Morris. Kemba Smith is a graduate from Virginia Union University and an enthusiastic public speaker at high schools, colleges, universities and juvenile facilities. Smith shares her love story in which she made bad decisions while at Hampton University that led to her twenty-four-and-a-half-year sentence, but later commuted by President Clinton to the time served (six and a half years).  She proceeded with her studies and graduated from Virginia Union University. She was a recipient for the Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship for advocates for two years. In 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia appointed Kemba Smith a member of Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (Smith, 2018).  The experience that Smith had while in a love affair with the drug dealer, and later in prison under the mandatory minimum sentences, qualifies her to write under the subject of criminology and mandatory minimum sentence laws.  Monique W. Morris is a social justice scholar and an award-winning author. She has about three decades of experience in writing about education, civil rights, social justice and juvenile (Morris, 2018). Morris co-authored “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story”. Furthermore, she has written widely on the issues of social justice. Morris’ experience in the areas of social justice qualifies her to write on the subject of Criminal justice and mandatory minimum sentencing laws. For instance, Morris has written and lectured on issues affecting Black girls and women. Also, she has published articles focusing on improving juvenile justice.

Purpose/Thesis

The purpose of the book is to present how falling in love with a drug dealer has dire consequences in the long-run and the effect mandatory minimum sentencing laws on women who associate with drug dealers. According to the authors, a person who falls in love with a drug dealer may end up paying for the drug dealer’s crimes. The key question that the authors are trying to answer is: Do most of the women convicted in drug cases sold drugs or were subject to mandatory minimum sentences? Kemba uses her story to illustrate that most of the women convicted in drug cases did not sell drugs, but were subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

Summary of the Book

The book, “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story”, is about Kemba Smith who was convicted of drug related activities alongside her boyfriend, Khalif while at Hampton University. Kemba was sentenced in prison for twenty-four-and-a-half-year imprisonment under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, without the possibility of a parole. President Clinton commuted her sentence after 6.5 years. Kemba pleaded that she never sold drugs, and that she only carried them under coercion. For instance, she narrates how her father visited Obici Hospital in Suffolk to talk to Nancy, the head nurse at the Women’s center. Her father says, “She was a regular American girl next door and got wrapped up with this guy and made some bad decisions….” (Smith & Morris, 2012, p. 10).  Furthermore, Kemba states that she was a victim of partner violence whereby she and her family were threatened by the drug dealer, who had also killed someone. At the time of sentencing, Kemba was pregnant, but the pregnancy did not make a difference in the length of her sentence. After her release from the prison, Smith completed her studies and became an enthusiastic public speaker at high schools, colleges, universities and national conferences. Smith’s story focuses on the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lead to imprisonment of women despite being victims of partner violence or being involved in drug trafficking under duress.

The topic of the book is that most of the women convicted of drug related activity did not sell drugs, if they did so, they did only under duress. The book argues against the strict mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws which require a person convicted of drug trafficking and abuse to be sentence to a specific period in prison. According to Haile (2016), the minimum mandatory sentencing laws binds the judges to predetermined sentencing period. The judges, therefore, do not have the authority to determine a lesser period from the predetermined period. The book covers the topic well by use of the Kemba Smith’s story: The story of an eighteen-year-old who fell in love with a drug dealer and ended up paying for his crimes.  In the title page of the book, Kemba Smith states, “It was easy falling in love with a drug dealer. The hard part was paying for his crimes.” The subtitle of the book means that Kemba was convicted falsely since she was just in love, and did not involve in drug business.  

The authors effectively cover the topic of the effect of mandatory minimum sentences in the book. For instance, in the section dedicated to President Clinton, “Dear Mr. President”, Kemba thanks President Clinton for granting her clemency, Clinton responds by saying, “…And I later learnt that she was part of a general class of women, some of whom were African Americans, but several of whom weren’t, who came to be known together as the so called “girlfriend cases.” Where these young women, at some point in their lives, had been involved with somebody who was dealing drugs, or doing drugs, and very often they weren’t involved at all, and if they didn’t rat their boyfriends out, they got stringer sentences than their boyfriends did.” (p.xvi). President Clinton’s statement means that there is a problem with the mandatory sentencing laws, which affected young women, who had nothing to do with drugs.  

 In chapter one, “Labor of Love”, Kemba Smith narrates her story of labor pain while in prison. This illustrates the pain she goes through while in prison, but most importantly, the story illustrates the pain she goes through for falling in love with a drug dealer. For instance, while in the delivery room, she recounts how she had fought to deliver while a free woman, but the efforts through her lawyer did not bear fruits. She says, “I was trying to work my way through it, but the last thing I wanted was for the weight of injustice and dishonor to taint the birth of my son.” (p. 4). By this statement, Kemba was referring to the minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which have led to her sentence in prison for twenty-four-and-a-half-year.

In chapters two to seven, the book describes how Kemba Smith became the “Poster Child”, a person that represents something. The authors narrate that Kemba was in love with Khalif, her boyfriend who was involved in drug business. Kemba was convicted for crack cocaine conspiracy and sentenced 24 and half years in prison. This was a harsh sentence because Smith was a first-time non-violent offender. Furthermore, Smith narrates how Khalif could abuse and beat her. This shows that she was a victim of partner violence. She, therefore, was minimally involved in crack cocaine conspiracy because she was under an abusive and violent partner. Also, she was not aware that associating with a criminal warranted her arrest, because of conspiracy.

The topic of the effect of minimum mandatory sentencing laws is important to the scholars of Criminology, and the general public because it provides insights into the flaws of the Criminal Justice System. The minimum mandatory sentencing laws were enacted to prevent drug trafficking and other related crimes by requiring the judge to sentence those found guilty to a predetermined term (U.S Department of Justice, 2017). For instance, Kemba Smith was sentenced for 24 and half years in prison under the minimum mandatory sentencing law. The book illustrates how this harsh sentencing affects women, who got caught up in love. Kemba narrates how making poor choices can lead to dire consequences, but also prepares the ground for overturning the harsh minimum mandatory sentencing laws that affect first time non-violent offenders.

The book’s objectives include; to warn girls and women against falling in love with a drug dealer because of the dire consequences of being subjected to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, to advocate for the women sentenced to prison under the minimum mandatory sentencing laws because of being involved with a drug dealer. The authors illustrate that most of the women incarcerated for drug related crimes are not part of the drug business and those who are involved in the business or use drugs, do so only under duress. The book convincingly meets the objectives by narrating the story of Kemba Smith, a girl who fall in love with a drug dealer and end up paying for his crimes. Furthermore, authors give an account of how Khalif, Kemba Smith’s boyfriend, abused her physically and emotionally. Therefore, Smith was a victim of partner violence and subjecting her to minimum mandatory sentencing of twenty-four and a half years was a harsh treatment.

The types evidence provided to support the authors’ thesis include; narration of Kemba Smith’s story. For instance, while in the delivery room, Smith says, “…but the last thing I wanted was for the weight of injustice and dishonor to taint the birth of my son.” (p.4). The statement shows that Smith was not satisfied with the law under which she was incarcerated. Also, her dad says, “Let me just say that Kemba really is not a criminal.” (p.9). He goes ahead to explain that she just got wrapped up with that guy and made some bad decisions. Smith’s story is consistent with the case of other women who get caught up in an abusive relationship and end up in prison for crack cocaine conspiracy. For instance, U.S Department of Justice (2017) shows that between 77% and 90% of incarcerated women were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by their partners. Smith was not a drug user, but other women use drugs to cope with a violent and abusive relationship. The evidence is convincing, because the story is an epitome of what goes on when a woman is in love with a drug dealer. Although some women use drugs, but evidence shows that they use drugs to cope up with emotional, physical and sexual abuse (Haile, 2016).

The topic that is missing and should be covered include; the responsibility of women in a relationship with a drug dealer.  Through Kemba’s story, the authors give an account of how making bad decisions can have dire consequences in the long-run. Also, the authors state that most of the women who are incarcerated did not sell drugs, and those who used drugs did so to cope up with an abusive relationship. Evidence shows that 77% to 90% of incarcerated women were in an abusive relationship (U.S Department of Justice, 2017). While it is true that some women were in an abusive relationship, I think the authors overlooked the fact that these women are responsible for their decisions. Once a woman is in a relationship with a drug dealer, she makes a choice either to continue with the relationship or end it. She might be under threat, for example, Kemba’s boyfriend threatened her, but she did not report the matter to the police. Instead, she chose to remain silent. Since she made a decision to remain silent and continue the relationship with her boyfriend, she was responsible for her actions, thus warranting the use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The text was useful to our Criminology course by presenting the effect of minimum mandatory sentencing laws to non-violent first-time offenders. The text offers some insights into how the mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unfair to the young women in an abusive relationship.  The text influenced my thinking on the subject of criminology in the manner that the mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unfair to first-time non-violent offenders. For instance, it was unfair for Kemba to receive the twenty-four and a half years sentence because of associating with a drug dealer.

My favorite chapter in the book was chapter one, “The Labor of Love” where Kemba narrates her experience in prison and the labor pains. The chapter is my favorite because it has double meaning; first, the labor of love means the pain she goes through for loving a drug dealer. Second, the labor of love means the actual labor pains she experiences before giving birth. Furthermore, the chapter is replete with humor. For instance, the nurse attending to her while in the delivery room thought it was ridiculous for the guards to be around when she delivers. As she attended to her, Kemba says, “…every now and then taking a moment to roll her eyes at my guards.” (p. 7). This is humorous because the look on the nurse could have been ridiculous and communicated a message- move out. Chapter five was the least favorite chapter, because it talks about betrayal whereby Khalif betrayed Kemba by having sex with Katiya, Kemba’s friend. Although the story shows how Khalif abused Kemba emotionally, the story lacked humor.

Organization and Documentation

The authors use a figurative style of writing. For instance, the authors name chapter one, “Labors of Love”. This is figurative with two meanings. The first one is that Kemba goes through pain in prison for loving a drug dealer. The second meaning is that Kemba is in labor pains associated with giving birth. Furthermore, the authors use the choice of words effectively to support the main idea. For instance, the words, “Poster Child”, “mandatory minimum sentencing” and “crack” are used in the book to demonstrate the focus of the book. Poster child means a person that represents something. In the book, Kemba is the poster child for the harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws. “Crack” is a term used to refer to crack cocaine. The term “crack” is chosen to refer to the drug cocaine and to help in addressing the main idea. The book is organized into chronological pattern. The story starts with Kemba in prison in chapter one. Chapters two to seven presents the experience with her boyfriend. Chapter eight to thirteen presents her struggle to be free and chapter fourteen is a letter to her son.

Implications

For women, the book implies that falling in love with a criminal will lead to dire consequences. Therefore, women should avoid associating with criminals, even if they are under duress. For children, the book implies that they should grow up knowing that choices have consequences. Also, children should be careful not to make bad decisions that may cost them a considerable time in jail. For families, the book implies that their loved ones may be associated with a criminal, thus bringing trouble to the family. For the community, the book implies that people should be aware of the consequences of associating with a drug dealer. People should report any person of suspicious activity. For the law enforcement, the book implies that there are some women who are incarcerated wrongly. These women are victims of an abusive partner relationship who do not deserve to pay for the partners’ crimes under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. If law enforcement leaders take this book seriously, there will be a reduction in the incarceration of women under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Conclusion

The book, “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story”, presents the effect of mandatory minimum sentencing laws to women who got caught up in love with drug dealers. Kemba was sentenced to twenty-four and a half years in prison for crack conspiracy. However, in her story, Kemba states that neither did she sell or use drugs. Her story, therefore, depicts the life of several other women who are incarcerated under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. I learnt from the book that not all women who are incarcerated for drug related activities are guilty. This is because some of these women were in an abusive relationship and if they carried or used drugs, they did so only under duress. My final judgement is that the book offers insights into the flaws in the use of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The book, therefore, is valuable to the Criminal Justice System on the topic of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. I would recommend the book to a professional colleague because it is an eye opener to the flaws in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws to women associated with drug dealers. The book review shows how women are abused emotionally, physically or sexually, then dragged into a criminal case.

References

Haile, J. (2016). Farewell, Fair Cruelty: An Argument for Retroactive Relief in Federal Sentencing. University of Toledo Law Review, 47(3), 635–648. 

Smith, K., & Morris, M. W. (2012). Poster child: The Kemba Smith story. Indianapolis, IN: Kemba Smith.

Smith, K. (2018). About Kemba. Retrieved from https://www.kembasmith.com/

Morris, M. W. (2018). About Monique w Morris. Retrieved from https://www.moniquewmorris.me/

U.S Department of Justice (2017).  The Impact of Incarceration and Mandatory Minimums on Survivors. Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls.  Summary Report from the Roundtable held September 21-22, 2015

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