(The Root) — In 1994 Kemba Smith was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a cocaine ring. The story of the harsh punishment dealt to a minor player — who admitted to lying and breaking the law for her abusive boyfriend but never used or sold drugs — caught the attention of criminal-justice advocates across the country.
After serving six-and-a-half years and receiving a presidential pardon in 2000, Smith, who told The Root that she felt a sense of "survivor's guilt" even after she was allowed to vote again, became an advocate in her own right.
Her latest cause is a partnership with civil rights group the Advancement Project to raise awareness about Virginia's felon-disenfranchisement law. The commonwealth is one of four states that permanently take away a citizen's right to vote after a felony conviction. (To cast a ballot again, citizens who have served their sentences must get individual petitions approved by the governor.) This means that 350,000 people — one-fifth of the state's African-American population — simply can't participate in the electoral process.
We talked to Smith about her support for the push to get Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to issue an executive order for automatic voting-rights restoration, misconceptions about felon disenfranchisement and why she thinks that withholding the right to vote represents "the opposite of redemption."
The Root: How did you become involved with the issue of felon disenfranchisement?
Kemba Smith: Ultimately, it was because of my own incarceration from September of 1994 to December of 2000. I received executive clemency from President Bill Clinton after my release, but I had a sense of survivor's guilt. As a first-time nonviolent offender, I was sentenced to 24 1/2 years. I could still be in prison today, but I was able to catch the attention of the press, and my situation was unique. In coming out of prison, it was very important for me to be vocal about the issue and advocate. I started working with drug reform, drug sentencing and other issues.
But even after I was released, I realized I was still not totally free because I could not vote. I had to apply to get my rights restored. Virginia had a waiting period, where you could not apply to get your rights restored until three to five years after [being] released from supervised release. When 2008 rolled around, when we had one of the most historic elections ever, I still had not met the Virginia requirements for getting rights restored.
I was in tears when I found out [that my right to vote was restored]. Even though I speak about my story and I'm a confident individual, it was then that I finally felt whole from the government. I just feel [that] voting is a basic fundamental right and you shouldn't have to jump through a bunch of hoops to gain it.
KS: I want him to acknowledge the wrong from this policy and the original intent from when it was created. In 1901 Virginia state Delegate Carter Glass said, "This plan will eliminate the darky as a political factor in this state in less than five years."
I had the opportunity to go to the United Nations in Geneva as part of the NAACP delegation. It was kind of surreal, just hearing other nations' human-rights representatives be in disbelief that we're going through this in Virginia. They assume that because we are one of the most democratic nations in the world, this wouldn't be a problem here.
So we are calling on Gov. McDonnell to issue an executive order to make rights restoration automatic. I'm not trying to put Gov. McDonnell in a bad light, because I appreciate all he's done — others haven't been as progressive as he is on this particular issue. I hope he will make a stand and do what [has needed] to be done for a long time now. I just think now's the time.
TR: What's the most difficult part of this type of advocacy?
KS: That some see voting as a privilege. If people are worried about murderers getting their rights restored, well, if a person has served their debt to society, people have to believe in redemption. Once the Department of Corrections has done what they need to do, a person needs to be restored. They need to be the equivalent, politically, as other people. If they're even looking in that direction, it means they want to have a better life.
Even though I was granted my petition, there are over 4 million people across the country [who are disenfranchised]. This is not an easy topic. At one of our college tours, I had a student approach me and say voting was a privilege. He held a grudge.
Not to take away from that or minimize that, but overall there needs to be a re-education … about formerly incarcerated individuals and our criminal-justice system as a whole, because eventually one of [the] over 2 million [currently] incarcerated people will be your neighbor. We don't want to push people away or generalize about people. That's the opposite of redemption.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.