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Jewish World Review August 20, 2001 / 1 Elul, 5761

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Bush should stand up for justice -- KEMBA SMITH, 29, and Dorothy Gaines, 43, are the rare, worthy and olitically unconnected recipients of clemency granted by former President Clinton. Their sentences were outrages that demanded extraordinary action.

In 1994, a federal judge sentenced Smith to 24 1/2 years in prison for conspiracy in a 255-kilogram crack operation. You'd think that sentence means she was a kingpin, calling the shots in a violent crack ring. In fact, she was a lovesick college student who took up with an abusive drug dealer (who was murdered by the time of her sentencing), broke some laws and found herself pregnant with his child.

She said on a visit to San Francisco sponsored by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children that she does not believe she should have been incarcerated. If it had to happen, she said, she should have been sentenced to two years behind bars, maximum. But the federal conspiracy laws that were supposed to make it easier to give kingpins hard time were used to send a nonviolent, first-time drug offender behind bars for a longer term than many murderers serve: almost 25 years.

"To me that was like having a life sentence," Smith explained.

Would she have been sentenced to serve this much time if she were a white college student?

"I feel if I was white, I wouldn't have had to do a day," she answered.

Gaines, who is also African American, thinks likewise. In 1995, Gaines was sentenced to just under 20 years in jail because, she says, she had been involved with a crack kingpin. "I am not mad because white (people) are not going to prison," she said. She is angry at prosecutors who put first-time drug offenders away for decades based on the testimony of "snitches" with records who are "trying to get their time cut."

Julie Stewart founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991 after the feds sentenced her brother to five years in prison for growing marijuana, but gave his accomplices -- convicted felons -- probation after they rolled on her brother. Stewart's brother is white, but she has seen the inequities of which Gaines speaks. According to U.S. Sentencing Commission Vice Chair John Steer, 60 percent of federal prisoners serving 20-year mandatory-minimum sentences are African American.

And the practice of rewarding snitching helps men, who have more information to trade. As Smith noted, "We're not the ones who are running the organizations. It's the men who are running the organizations. When things hit the fan, the men have more information to give as far as snitching, where their time gets reduced."

I'm not saying Gaines and Smith were blameless. Both women took up with drug dealers. Kemba Smith lied to authorities about her boyfriend and she helped him with his illegal drug trade. While Gaines claims she did nothing to warrant incarceration, U.S. Attorney J. Don Foster is convinced she is guilty. Even if he is right, her sentence was too stiff. In a country where the punishment is supposed to fit the crime, decades in prison for low-level, first-time drug offenses are an abomination.

No credit to him, President Bush supports the federal mandatory-minimum sentencing system. As a presidential candidate, he told the NAACP, "I believe our systems of justice must be fair and impartial to all, regardless of race. Mandatory-minimum sentences can help achieve this goal by insuring consistent sentences for all defendants."

"That shows how little he knows," responded FAMM's Stewart. Judges have to stick to sentencing guidelines based on the quantity of drugs sold. Prosecutors, however, determine who spends decades in prison because they decide the amount of drugs involved in a "conspiracy" case.

That hurt Kemba Smith, who was charged in a conspiracy case for drugs her boyfriend dealt when they weren't together.

Today, Clinton's pardons stand largely discredited as pardons for the rich and politically well connected. Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith serve as worthy exceptions. Gaines trusts that "G-d can touch (Bush's) heart."

FAMM has a wish list of other federal prisoners whose sentences far exceed their crimes. Bush should commute their sentences, then roll up his sleeves to humanize federal drug sentencing.

Comment JWR contributor Debra J. Saunders's column by clicking here.


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