The One Key Detail That Could Change The Way You Think About Trump & Alice Marie Johnson

by Celia Darrough
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A 63-year-old woman was sentenced to life in prison for drug charges — and she served 21 years before Trump decided Wednesday to free her. While it's clear she'll be released from prison, one thing has been murky. Did Trump pardon Alice Marie Johnson or commute her sentence? You might think, whatever, she's getting out of prison, but they are not the same thing.

Pardons and commutations are both forms of clemency, which Merriam Webster defines as a decision to "moderate the severity of punishment" or an "instance of leniency." But there's a huge difference in the two actions. A commutation — which is what Trump did for Johnson — ends the punishment that a person had received for a crime. A pardon, however, would take the conviction off of her record.

"A pardon wipes out the conviction while a commutation leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment," Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, told ABC News a decade ago when President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of White House aide Scooter Libby.

As Mic has reported, Johnson was convicted of drug conspiracy and money laundering in 1997 for her role in a cocaine distribution operation. By commuting her sentence, this essentially means that, yes, Johnson will be released from prison, ending her punishment for the crime. But her conviction has not been forgiven.

While many are celebrating Trump's decision to commute Johnson's sentence, others are pointing out who he has pardoned (and therefore erased the crime from their record).

For instance, last August, Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt after he continued to perform immigration raids that had been found to be unconstitutional. Arpaio ran a "tent city" that he referred to as a "concentration camp" for undocumented immigrants, forced male detainees to wear pink underwear in an attempt to humiliate them, set up a webcam filming female inmates using the bathroom, and overall did a lot of things many people found extremely offensive.

In pardoning him (and in effect, clearing him of all wrongdoing), Trump said, "Throughout his time as sheriff, Arpaio continued his life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration."

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Trump also recently pardoned Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative who was convicted of campaign finance fraud. Laws state that one person can only give a certain amount to a political candidate or campaign, but D'Souza skirted this by having other people donate and then reimbursing them. Despite having pleaded guilty, D'Souza claimed that he was targeted by the Obama administration for conviction because he was conservative.

“And so, this was a vindictive political hit that was kind of aimed at putting me out of business," he said on Fox & Friends, adding that it left "a cloud" over him. "I would be a lifelong felon. I would never be able to vote and never have my full rights."

It's the last part of that quote that's also important to note. By commuting Johnson's sentence rather than pardoning her, and therefore leaving her criminal conviction in place, her life will not immediately return to normal upon release.

A statement from the White House noted that Johnson had "accepted responsibility for her past behavior" and had "worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates." It added:

While this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance

Johnson's commutation came just a week after Kim Kardashian met with Trump to discuss prison reform. Kardashian has long been a champion of Johnson's, working to get her released. She made no mention of the fact that Johnson's conviction will not be erased, tweeting, "BEST NEWS EVER!!!!" and later echoed the White house when she added, "Her commutation is inspirational & gives hope to so many others who are also deserving of a second chance."