Ava DeSantis writes how Kim Kardashian West’s ‘The Justice Project’ documentary, by misrepresenting the causes of unfairness in the criminal justice system, is actively harmful.
Kim Kardashian began her criminal justice advocacy in October 2017, and this year a documentary, following her journey as she met victims of the system and worked to bring awareness to their cases, became available online.
According to the ACLU, “1 in every 3 Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime” compared to “1 in every 17 white boys.” Near the beginning of the film, Kardashian West recognizes that she has no personal experience with the criminal justice system. She does not dwell on this, however, considering how her status as an ultra-rich white woman might explain her lack of connection to a system that serves to enforce race and class lines of economic and social supremacy.
Kim Kardashian West’s introduction to the criminal justice system was through twitter. Alice Johnson’s introduction to the criminal justice system occurred when she was given a life sentence, plus 25 years, for a first-time, low-level drug offense.
Alice Johnson: Who Is In Prison For Drug Crimes?
In 1996, a woman named Alice went to prison for being a phone-mule in a drug ring. “I had been in management for 10 years when I lost my job. I struggled financially. I couldn’t find a job fast enough to take care of my family. I felt like a failure. I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy,” Alice explained her story from behind glass in the prison visiting room.
Alice’s life sentence stole parts of her life which she will never regain. “I missed the birth of my grandchildren, being able to be in their life. I just had a great-grandson. I missed that. Both of my parents passed away. I was not able to be by either of their sides in their final days. That’s an ache that I can’t – that never goes away.”
Kardashian West saw video footage of Alice explaining her case on Twitter in October 2017 and joined the advocates for her release. After contacting a lawyer friend, Kardashian West obtained contact with Alice and her attorneys. In 2018, Kardashian West met with President Donald Trump to request a commutation for Johnson. A week later, Johnson received a commutation and returned to her family.
When asked why she took up Johnson’s case, Kardashian West replied “here’s a grandmother who took part in her first-time nonviolent offense and received the same sentence as Charles Manson. I just thought, this is so wrong and so bizarre, and how could that be?” In ‘The Justice Project,’ Kim answers this question, blaming the failures or wrongdoings of individuals in her clients’ lives.
Well, Kim, this is a race issue. Consider drug offenses: Alice Johnson lost over 20 years of her life to a low-level, non-violent, first-time drug offense. This sentencing was not simply unfair, it was discriminatory. As Human Rights Watch documented, in some states, Black Americans make up 90% of those imprisoned for drug crimes and are up to 57 times more likely than white Americans to face incarceration for these offenses. There is no significant difference in rates of drug usage by race.
In a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine, a top Nixon administration official admitted that they invented the War on Drugs to target Black communities and antiwar activists. John Ehrlichman, former Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, explained “the Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.” He continued “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Kim’s failure, in an almost 2-hour documentary, to mention racial discrimination in sentencing, policing, or prosecution makes her project a voice for ‘All Lives Matter’ trolls and other deniers of the obvious systemic racism within the American criminal justice system. Those who look to deny the need for a “Black Lives Matter” movement, might similarly describe failures of the system as singular cases of unfair treatment unrelated to the race of the accused.
Dawn Jackson: Who Needs A Public Defender?
Kardashian West introduced Dawn Jackson’s case and read from a letter she received. “Dear Ms. Kardashian West, during my early childhood I was sexually abused, intimidated, and coerced by certain male family members. My sexual abuse began at the age of five, I was molested repeatedly for many years by a total of six men. As a result of the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, I took the life of my step-grandfather in what I believe was a necessary act to defend myself. I was represented by a public defender who was greatly ineffective. This opinion is based off her failure to present the underlying facts in this case.”
The documentary interviewed Jackson’s daughter as well. She provided details on her mother’s history, saying “she was on drugs really, really bad. Grandad touched her, you know, touched her in a certain area…something snapped, and she stabbed him.”
“Dawn was improperly sentenced,” Kim argued. “None of the circumstances that led her to this place were ever presented in court. She definitely should have gone to jail and spent time, but she should have had a fair trial with her circumstances presented, that she was raped by this man.” If a viewer of this documentary had no knowledge of the public defender system, they might believe Jackson got stuck with a singularly incompetent lawyer or even hired one. The documentary does not define public defender or explain that public defenders are court-appointed.
Courts appointed public defenders to represent those defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer. Economic advantages were historically, systemically limited to white men, and continue to be largely inaccessible to Black communities. As a Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality study explained, this economic oppression is why “one in four blacks, one in four Native Americans, and one in five Hispanics are classified as poor” and “by contrast, only 1 in 10 whites and 1 in 10 Asians are poor.”
The public defender system realized the purpose of the 6th Amendment’s promise of “effective counsel” for poor defendants but often fails to do so. The failure of the public defender system to provide effective counsel is perhaps best exemplified by the state of Louisiana, a state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country. In the 20th district, one attorney has close to 900 cases at once, covering two parishes. This predicament results in cases like Dawn Jackson’s, where crucial information does not appear in a client’s defense. Again, this is a systemic issue of racial and class oppression.
On White Privilege
Kardashian West’s ‘The Justice Project,’ is fundamentally about white privilege, but does not acknowledge the existence of this privilege. It centers Kim’s discovery of the failures of the criminal justice system while ignoring the racial and class oppression which is at the root of these failures like only a documentary on the criminal justice system centering around a rich, white woman could. The film’s official description says that it “highlights Kim’s growing understanding of mandatory sentencing, the damaging problems of mass incarceration, as well as the importance of educational programs and rehabilitation efforts for a successful re-entry into society.”
A Variety staff writer criticized the film on the grounds that “for [Kardashian West], reform of a system that causes chaos in the lives of so many, particularly of black Americans, comes in the package of the beneficent gift of individual attention to telegenic and unthreatening cases, rather than… reform.” It is true that the documentary tells a white savior narrative, as it follows Kim. More importantly, ‘The Justice Project’ fails to even acknowledge the racialized nature of the issue it discusses.
Kardashian West discussed her advocacy on The View in September 2019. She responded to a question about the potential public backlash to her meeting with President Donald Trump from Megan McCain and stated, “I definitely was aware [of the potential criticism], but for me, any of my issues have always been more about the people and not about the politics.” She continued, “for me to think that I couldn’t go and speak to the man that has the power to change people’s lives because of some opinions I may have of certain policies and issues to me felt very self-centered that I was more worried about my reputation than saving someone’s life.” This prioritization is logical, and some would say selfless. It is good that Alice Johnson sits at home with her family. Dawn Johnson also saw increased public support for her case, and the other cases Kardashian highlighted also benefited from her support. However, Kardashian West misrepresented why these individuals received unjust treatment.
The Black Lives Matter movement works actively to bring national attention to the racial injustices in policing, and other aspects of the criminal justice system. Political opponents of The Black Lives Matter movement use the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ to confuse the issue and paint incidents, as Kardashian West does, as accidental failures of an otherwise well-intentioned system. Why focus on Black lives, they ask? If ‘The Justice Project’ were your only introduction to the criminal justice system, you might ask the same thing.