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Faces of the American Freedom Initiative's National Pardon Project: Curtis McDonald

FreedomWorks recently announced the launch of the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.

Curtis McDonald was convicted of criminal conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 1996, as part of a large drug bust of a ring trafficking between Houston and McDonald’s native Memphis, Tennessee. Though it was his first conviction and for a non-violent offense, because he was found to be in a leadership role on the Memphis end of the drug ring, McDonald received a life sentence. He was 45 years old at the time.

One of the other individuals indicted under the same case was Alice Marie Johnson, who was similarly handed a life sentence in federal prison. In many respects, her story and McDonald’s continued to parallel even after both were sent to separate prisons. Both came to show remorse for their crimes and to work to improve themselves. Both became mentors to help fellow inmates better themselves and prepare for a successful life upon release, even though McDonald and Johnson themselves had no expectation of ever being released themselves.

However, their paths diverged in 2018, when Alice Johnson was granted clemency by President Trump and released from prison, after having earned high profile support from advocates that included Kim Kardashian West. Johnson has devoted much of her time since being released drawing attention to other prisoners like her who have put in the work to improve themselves but continue to serve out unjustly long sentences. In that respect, Curtis McDonald has been near the top of her list.

For his part, McDonald founded and runs the Mentors 4 Life program for younger fellow inmates. One rehabilitation program leader said of McDonald, “He’s extraordinary. He teaches from his mistakes, and the men love him.” Now 70 years old, McDonald contracted COVID-19 in prison, but while some elderly prisoners have been granted compassionate release on account of the danger of the COVID outbreak in a confined environment, his appeal for such relief was denied in June.

Opposing McDonald’s appeal for release was U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant, who also opposed Alice Johnson’s appeal to reduce her supervision sentence after she was released in 2018. Dunavant’s long opposition not only attacked Johnson’s character by labelling her a greedy attention-seeker for her efforts after her release, he also argued that granting any mercy to her would remove the deterrent effect of incarceration and punishment. Presumably this attitude carried forward in Dunavant’s opposition to releasing McDonald.

The question in cases like Johnson’s and McDonald’s is not the severity of their crime, or whether simple drug trafficking causes harm -- to say that their crimes were non-violent doesn’t imply that they were victimless. The base question in cases such as these is whether there is to be any recognition of someone who has gone out of their way to atone for their offense by positively changing their life and the lives of others around them. Just as a prison sentence is to serve as a deterrent, should there not be some measure of reward for an offender working to better their own life and those of others around them?

While the mandatory life (effectively, death-in-prison) sentences handed down for drug crimes such as Johnson’s and McDonald’s were a reaction to some judges handing down unconscionably lenient sentences for serious crimes, judgments are now all-too-often the domain of prosecutors like Dunavant, who appear to believe that all such criminals are entirely beyond any hope of redemption. Yet their cases, as with most of the offenders highlighted by the National Pardon Product, highlight how indefensible it is to take such a hard line.

Based upon his exemplary behavior, Curtis McDonald poses no threat to public safety, nor is justice served by holding him behind bars until he dies. Unfortunately, like most of those serving federal life sentences, he appears to be entirely reliant upon a pardon from President Trump for any hope of freedom.