Kemba Smith

How draconian sentencing policies have made Black women the forgotten victims of the "war on drugs" and mass incarceration.

Who is Kemba Smith?

Kemba Smith is a mother, wife, criminal justice advocate, speaker, and author. Her book, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, chronicles her traumatic experience with domestic abuse, injustice, disenfranchisement, and re-entry. The film Kemba follows her journey from being targeted by the federal government’s “war on drugs”, enduring a prison sentence for her then-boyfriend’s actions, to partnering with LDF to fight for her release from prison. Kemba is now available for streaming. Watch here on BET+.

Photo: Kemba Smith and LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson during Ms. Smith's visit to LDF in 2019. (Source: LDF Archives)

Like thousands of incarcerated women, Kemba Smith was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend Peter Hall. Over the course of their relationship, Ms. Smith was repeatedly abused and feared for her and her family’s safety. She witnessed some of Mr. Hall’s illegal activity and was subsequently held accountable for his actions after he was murdered.

Although Ms. Smith never sold or used drugs, federal prosecutors charged her with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. And because of the harsh federal sentencing laws in effect at the time, she was sentenced to 24 ½ years in prison without the possibility of parole despite being a first-time, nonviolent offender who was seven months pregnant.

Ms. Smith’s case exposed the irrational and unfair nature of federal mandatory sentencing standards, which prevented federal judges from considering the individual circumstances of each accused person, including whether they had any prior convictions.  And they restricted any consideration of important mitigating factors like domestic violence, which were central to Ms. Smith’s case.

The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) became involved with Kemba’s case after learning the injustices she suffered. It was clear to LDF that the one-size-fits-all sentence she received ignored important mitigating factors and was wholly disproportionate to her offense. LDF challenged Ms. Smith’s sentence and, alongside her family, developed a public education campaign to expose the injustice of excessive sentences for individuals with abusive or deprived circumstances.

In 2000, LDF successfully obtained clemency for Ms. Smith, who was released after serving six and a half years of her prison sentence.

Former LDF President and Director-Counsel Ted Shaw with Kemba Smith outside of Danbury Federal Correctional Institution shortly after her release.(Source: LDF Archives)
Kemba Smith and Former LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. (Source: LDF Archives)

How Mass Incarceration Harms Black Women

According to the Sentencing Project, the sharp rise of women involved in the criminal justice system is the product of “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to re-entry that uniquely affect women.” Kemba Smith’s story is emblematic of this pattern that has helped fuel the rise of mass incarceration.

Black Women are

1.6 x

as likely to be incarcerated as white women.

Between 1986 and 1991, the number of Black women incarcerated in state-prisons on drug-related charges ballooned 828 percent according to a 1995 report by The Sentencing Project titled “Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later.” When Kemba Smith was arrested, Black women were the fastest growing incarcerated population in the nation. Three decades later, Black women are still being incarcerated at an alarming rate. According to the 2020 Census, Black women comprise 7.7 percent of the total U.S. population and 15.3 percent of the population of women, yet were 29 percent of incarcerated women that year were Black.  Although Kemba Smith is now free, many of the thousands of other women who were swept up by unjust, draconian sentencing laws during the War on Drugs are still languishing in prisons and jails today.

Overall, the number of incarcerated women has risen a staggering 525 percent between 1980 and 2021, according to the Sentencing Project. In 1980, 26,326 women were incarcerated in jails, state prisons, and federal prisons while there are now more than 172,000 women and girls incarcerated in the United States. Although the incarceration rate for women dipped during the pandemic, it is now rising again. That increase is driven, in part, by the fact that drug-related arrests for women continue to grow even as drug-related arrests of men have fallen for years.

Women incarcerated in 1980
Women incarcerated in 2023
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The reach of mass incarceration extends well beyond prison walls. The Sentencing Project reports that roughly 976,000 women were under some form of correctional control as of 2021. This includes women locked up and those under some form of community supervision. 808,700 of those women were on probation or parole.

Kemba: The Film

Kemba is based on the true story of Kemba Smith and recounts her unjust prison sentence, being placed in the middle of the government’s “war on drugs,”, and her campaign with LDF for appeal and clemency.

Kemba is now available for streaming. Watch here on BET+.

Read Her Story

Kemba Smith’s book, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, chronicles her traumatic experience with domestic abuse, injustice, disenfranchisement and re-entry.

Learn More About The Case

Read the full article from Emerge magazine that sparked then Director-Counsel Elaine Jones’ interest in the case and see a letter from her about LDF’s involvement and the importance of Ms. Smith’s fight for justice.