AUSTIN — AUSTIN -- It was the Oval Office meeting that raised a few eyebrows. The Commander in Chief meeting with reality TV star Kim Kardashian-West as she advocated for the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year old grandmother serving a life sentence, without parole, for her part in a cocaine distribution ring.
Johnson's attorney, Brittany Barnett, sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss the case and a need for criminal justice reform.
Ashley Goudeau: For viewers who don't know about her, talk to us about the case.
Brittany Barnett: "So, Alice Marie Johnson is my client who was serving life without parole as a first-time, non-violent drug offender, meaning she had never been in any trouble before. And she was serving her 21st year of this fundamental death sentence and was granted clemency by President Trump on June the 6th."
Goudeau: I think a lot of people know there's a Kim Kardashian connection to this. Talk to us about that.
Barnett: "So that connection is actually phenomenal to me as part of her legal team and as an advocate of hers for several years. Kim Kardashian saw a Skype video that Alice was allowed to do from prison. She just so happened to be on Twitter when the video was on her feed and Kim was not only moved to tears, she was moved to action. And became truly dedicated to the cause of freeing Alice Johnson and she did it."
Goudeau: Talk to us about that sentence. Why do you think such a serious sentence for the crime she committed?
Barnett: "You know, there are consequences for committing crimes. And I want to be clear about that. It's often imprisonment for selling drugs, but it should never be for the rest of your natural life for a non-violent drug offense. I think that as a result of the War on Drugs, there was heightened sentencing laws put into place decades ago that are, quite frankly, Draconian. And it is morally and economically indefensible for Alice Johnson or anybody to be serving a fundamental death sentence for a non-violent drug offense."
Goudeau: Why do you feel so passionately about that? Some people say this is a serious crime.
Barnett: "It is. I agree. And I agree that, oftentimes, imprisonment is warranted. But I believe that people should be given a second chance. I think, you know, life without parole is the second most severe penalty permitted by law in America. It screams 'a person is beyond redemption, beyond hope,' and it's just grossly disproportionate in cases like Alice Johnson's."
Goudeau: And you are here in Austin to speak at the Women Unshackled conference that happened. You all are going to discuss a number of issues and one of them is the growing number of women in prisons in America.
Barnett: "Yes, yes. It is astronomical. The amount of women in prison has grown nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years. And that's just a reality that cannot and should not be ignored. "
Goudeau: Why is that? Do you think it's because our population has grown, or more women are committing crimes? What's really leading, what's the catalyst for that?
Barnett: "You know, it's a lot of factors and one of the main factors is that I think our system of incarceration is in a moral crisis. It is in catastrophic proportions locking people up at rates that will blow your mind. And I think we need to look into alternatives to incarceration. You know, this is an issue that's near and dear to me and I know from personal experience of my own mother being in prison that these women are not bad people, they just made bad choices. And when we start treating the punishment as a bad choice and not punishing them as bad people, I think we could go a long way."
Goudeau: Obviously, you're not the only person who feels so passionately about this. In fact, President Donald Trump called for a White House summit on prison reform, telling lawmakers he wanted bills on his desk to reform the criminal justice system. Are you hopeful by that push from the President?
Barnett: "I am hopeful. You know, this is not a political issue, it's a people issue. And I think that we have to come together from across political spectrums and really truly look at the failure of mass incarceration as a people issue. This is about human dignity."
Goudeau: What type of policies would you like to see put into place or changed that would have a positive impact?
Barnett: "You know, we need, there's several policies and a lot of it has to do with dignity of incarcerated women as well as placing children closer to their families. But also we need sentencing reform so that we stop it at the front end as well."
Goudeau: Are there any particular bills that you see coming down the pipeline that you think will have an impact?
Barnett: "You know, there's a couple on the federal level and then on the state level as well. I'm in Texas, I'm from Dallas, I was personally impacted by incarceration and I'd like to see more legislation on the state level as well."
Goudeau: Anything in particular you'd like to see?
Barnett: "On the state level in particular is the issue of proximity. That's an issue that's very important to me. My non-profit, Girls Embracing Mothers, partners with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to take girls to visit their moms in prison once a month. And we make a four-and-a-half-hour round trip for our girls to visit their moms in prison. And we have to have these prisons closer to home. It is proven, it's been researched that consistent communication and contact with one's family while incarcerated significantly helps reduce recidivism."
Goudeau: When we also look at what some of these women are going through, there's a lot of trauma and mental health that, issues that aren't necessarily being addressed while these women are in prison.
Barnett: "You're absolutely right. A hundred percent of the women we have served over the past five years with Girls Embracing Mothers have been touched by some type of trauma. And what we provide is a safe, healing space with licensed professionals that I am truly grateful that the State of Texas allows us to do. You know, this is something to be said about the prison system in Texas. We are allowed to have these enhanced visits with incarcerated women, but we still have a long way to go."
Goudeau: You've talked about this a little bit but I want to kind of dive a little more into it; your own personal story. This is very personal for you because you've been through this. Share a little bit about your experience.
Barnett: "Yes. A defining moment in my life can be attributed to a seven-digit number; 1374671. And that was the number assigned to my mom by the Texas prison system when she began serving an eight-year sentence. And that is my mama. And I think that we just have to keep that in mind. These are mothers, they're daughters, they're sisters, they're aunts. And that experience alone was the gateway to me forming Girls Embracing Mothers, but it was also the gateway that just gave me a heightened sense of compassion and empathy that I never knew that I had."
Goudeau: And part of it is trying to break this cycle, right? Because we do see a cycle forming.
Barnett: "Absolutely, and one of the things that's so important is the proximity issue that I mentioned before. My mother and I are living proof that the cycle that often accompanies incarceration can be broken. And that is exactly what we're trying to do with Girls Embracing Mothers and just the way we live our lives. My mom has been home for 10 years now, she's an active volunteer with Girls Embracing Mothers, she's a drug rehabilitative nurse and, you know, we just want to show women and girls that the cycle can be broken."
Goudeau: You went on to become an attorney. You've gotten clemency for seven of your clients. What does that really say about our system?
Barnett: "You know, there is a lot of work to be done and I believe that lawyers have a responsibility as well. A lot of my work was pro bono, most of my work was pro bono as a corporate lawyer, and a couple of years ago I resigned from corporate law to follow my passion for criminal justice reform and truly elevate Girls Embracing Mothers to new heights. There's just nothing more urgent than freedom."