Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jan 2005
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2005 The Kansas City Star
Author: Donald Bradley, The Kansas City Star


Kemba Smith played piano and danced ballet growing up as the only
child in an upper-middle class suburban family.

She made good grades in high school, then went off to prestigious
Hampton University in Virginia.

She made her parents proud.

Then she made them cry.

In 1994, Smith was sentenced to 24 years and eight months in federal
prison for a drug conspiracy conviction. She said she wanted
desperately to be accepted and fell in with the wrong crowd

"Friends who are not on the same journey as you -- you need to let
them go," Smith on Friday told an audience of Kansas City area high
school students.

Smith, whose case became a national rallying cry against federal
mandatory sentence guidelines before she was pardoned by
then-President Bill Clinton, spoke at the Youth Leadership Development
Workshop, part of this month's Martin Luther King Jr.

The event, held at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, was organized
by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.

About 100 high school students attended. Workshop topics included
abuse in relationships, civil rights of students, abuse of power by
adults and achieving diversity in school leadership.

Most of the students were African-American, and some of the agenda
focused on racial injustice, such as sentencing disparities between
whites and minorities. A breakout session was titled: "What to do when
stopped by the police."

Smith, who grew up in Richmond, Va., continued the theme. Her
first-time, nonviolent drug conspiracy conviction and 296-month
sentence were often cited by critics who complained that federal
mandatory drug penalties were too harsh and ignored what should be key

Smith's boyfriend was a major drug dealer near the Hampton campus, she
said. The authorities were after him, but he was killed before a case
could be mounted.

"That's when they decided to come after me," Smith said

She contends the boyfriend was abusive, and that prosecutors never
accused her of transporting or selling drugs.

After serving six years in prison -- and a vigorous campaign by her
parents and others to free her -- Smith was granted clemency by
Clinton in 2000.

Smith said she was unfairly punished but acknowledged her

"I'm a real-life example of what happens when you make poor choices,"
Smith told the students.

"I know how I hurt my parents," she added. "I saw it in their faces
when they came to see me. That was the most painful part of prison."

She encouraged the students to study in school, get involved in their
community and to look beyond rap music's dominant themes of drugs, sex
and money.

"Don't let the system snatch you up and take you away from your
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