Kemba Smith Pradia on today’s criminal justice reform movement

August 16, 2023

“In the mid-90s Kemba Smith became world famous for all the wrong reasons—becoming a poster child for the ‘War on Drugs’ and its resulting mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that branded the 23-year-old Hampton University student, who had never run afoul of the law in her life, to 24 years in prison.

“Her story became national news thanks to Black media; more specifically the now defunct Emerge Magazine, and their May 1996 cover story ‘Kemba’s Nightmare.’

“Now Kemba Smith Pradia [Leading with Conviction™ 2019], the formerly incarcerated, domestic abuse survivor, mother, daughter, author, motivational speaker, foundation head and executive producer of the movie about her life (‘Kemba,’ set to be released in early 2024), is a criminal justice reform activist, and has been since she was released from prison after serving six and a half years.

“Smith Pradia considers her release from prison a miracle spurred on in large part by that Emerge article and the work of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (now the LDF Thurgood Marshall Institute), headed then by Elaine Jones. …

“We also need to help change the narrative in this country of people coming out of prison.”

“The Defender caught up with Smith Pradia during the recent National Urban League Convention in Houston where she spoke about her experiences and the importance of restorative justice. …

“DEFENDER: What do you think about today’s conversation about criminal justice reform?

“KEMBA: There have been some changes, but I do feel like more needs to be done. And I feel like that we’re in a society nowadays that’s focusing on how much crime is exploding, but they’re not really caring about the traumatic instances that are happening in our communities. How we have kids that are raising kids and some of our kids don’t have a first chance. So, I think it’s really important that we as a community stay engaged, that we lift up and support each other. But we also need to help change the narrative in this country of people coming out of prison. Because oftentimes, the media does a good enough job showing Black and Brown faces on TV and saying all the violent crime or various things that are being done. But there are actually individual, formerly incarcerated people that come out and have benefited from everyone’s tax dollars, from behavioral modification programs with therapy where they come out a brand new person and they’re no longer that person that they were.”

Read the full interview at

(Photo above: Aswad Walker for the Defender)

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