Demaryius Thomas’s Path to Super Bowl Highlights Need for Criminal Justice Reform

Yesterday, football fans watched Demaryius Thomas, wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, defeat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Adding to the sweetness of the Broncos’ victory was the fact that Thomas’s mother, Katina Smith, was there to experience it in person after having her 24-plus year prison sentence commuted 15 years in.

In March 1999, Thomas’s home was raided, and his mother was arrested for her role in a cocaine ring run by her mother, Minnie Pearl. Prosecutors offered Smith a plea deal that would have allowed her to avoid facing a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence if she testified against her mother. Smith refused the deal and received a sentence of more than 24 years in prison.

Last July, however, Smith was one of 46 nonviolent offenders whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. She was released from a halfway house in November, and was allowed to leave Georgia to watch her son play in person for the first time last month. The experiences of Thomas and his mother call attention to the ill effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the myriad collateral consequences of incarceration that affect ex-offenders, their families, and their communities.

After his mother went to prison, Thomas was separated from his sisters and lived with nearly every member of his extended family before settling into the home of James and Shirley Brown, his aunt and uncle. Thomas stayed in school, got a job, and became an all-state receiver. He was awarded a football scholarship to Georgia Tech and was later drafted by the Broncos. Most children whose parents are incarcerated are not so fortunate. As of 2007, there were 1.7 million children with a parent in prison, and these children are far more likely than others to end up in prison themselves. Many children with parents behind bars do not have family to care for them, ensuring that they learn, grow, and put their talents to good use, like Thomas did.

Moreover, Thomas’ mother is fortunate to have her son to help her transition back into society. When ex-offenders are released from prison, they often have difficulty finding housing and face a job market that is largely closed off to them due to their criminal histories. Oftentimes, for example, occupational licensing restrictions bar ex-offenders from applying for the requisite license to work in a certain profession. The result is that ex-offenders are unable to work in a variety of positions—even if they have gained experience relevant to these positions through a prison work program.

Luckily, this particular story has a happy ending. When asked what it was like to see his mother after the Super Bowl win, Thomas responded: “It was amazing. Just to see her face. She was excited. All you saw was grins—on her face, my face. The first thing she said [was that] she was proud of me. We hugged it out.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have locked away too many nonviolent offenders for excessively lengthy periods of time and have made communities less safe by cutting ex-offenders off from proper re-entry processes and employment opportunities. Incarceration is sometimes necessary, but prisons generally ought to be reserved for the people we are scared of—not the people we’re mad at.

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