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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2000 / 24 Kislev, 5761

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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'Tis the season to free nonviolent drug offenders -- THIS SHOULD BE the perfect time for President Clinton to commute the sentences of low-level nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. Clinton recently told Rolling Stone magazine that drug sentences "in many cases are too long for nonviolent offenders" and that federal mandatory minimum laws, which often force judges to mete out harsh sentences to low-level drug offenders, need to be "re-examined."

He told Rolling Stone it was too late for him to act. Wrong. The chief can offer more than cheap talk by commuting the sentences of prisoners whose sentences far outweigh their crimes. Clinton should free inmates serving hard time because heavy-handed conspiracy laws can put them away, not only for their small-time deeds, but also for the big deals, which they didn't control, of their higher-ups.

Toward that end, the newly formed Coalition for Jubilee Clemency sent a letter, signed by some 600 religious leaders, asking Clinton to release on supervised parole thousands of nonviolent low-level federal drug offenders who have served five years.

Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation has shone a spotlight on cases in which small fish did big-fish time while prosecutors let their kingpins serve lesser sentences.

In 1995 Alabaman Dorothy Gaines was sentenced to 19 years because she didn't turn on her crack dealer boyfriend; the drug ring's leader is due for release around 2004. Dorothy Gaines should be allowed to walk out of prison before her drug kingpin walks.

Clinton could ask federal judges -- there are more than 600 -- to name a case over which they lost sleep because the sentence far outstripped the offense. Or he could commute the thousands of sentences for first-time nonviolent low-level drug offenders.

These low-level offenders are being forced to compete with high-profile bids for presidential clemency. The Left, for example, wants Clinton to free convicted FBI agent killer Leonard Peltier, just as he freed 12 Puerto Rican terrorists last year. Peltier, they say, is a political prisoner; he has cachet.

For their part, Jubilee drug offenders are basically a bunch of suckers. As former Department of Justice pardon attorney Margaret Love explained, "These are little inconsequential people, who played minor roles in conspiracy offenses and who were hit very hard."

It doesn't help the Jubilee effort that many member clergy apparently are hard-of-hearing lefties who sign every letter for every hug-a-thug cause. Asked why he signed the nonviolent drug-offender clemency letter, a San Francisco minister told me, "Because I don't believe in capital punishment." A Berkeley minister answered, "There is no evidence that Leonard Peltier shot anyone." Which isn't true.

So let Amy Pofahl speak of mercy. Pofahl was sentenced to 24 years because her husband, who cut a deal with the feds, was an Ecstasy kingpin. Clinton commuted Pofahl's sentence in July -- after she had served nine long years in prison.

"Every one of these people will walk out the door when their sentence ends anyway," Pofahl noted. They can walk out whole, or with the wear that comes from spending too many years behind bars.

Sterling cites federal statistics showing that 28 percent of federal drug prisoners had no prior criminal record. "The young and inexperienced are the easiest to take down," he noted. A drug kingpin can name many contacts, while spouses, girlfriends and messengers don't have the goods on many people.

Kemba Smith, 29, fits the profile. In 1995, a federal judge sentenced her to 24 years in prison because she had "aided and abetted" her by-then-dead boy friend's drug operation. If he had lived, she could have turned on him and walked. Because he died, and she couldn't or wouldn't turn on other dealers, she is doing longer time than many rapists and murderers.

She should be spending Christmas with her parents and son. She already has served years of her sentence. And unlike the FBI killer and FALN terrorists, there is nothing tying Smith to senseless violence. She deserves mercy. Or is Kemba Smith too insignificant in Bill Clinton's America to find it?

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


12/18/00: A golden opportunity is squandered
12/15/00: You can take the 24 years, good son
12/13/00: Court of law vs. court of public opinion
12/08/00: A salvo in the war on the war on drugs
12/06/00: Don't cry, Butterfly: Big trees make great decks
12/04/00: Florida: Don't do as Romans did
11/30/00: Special City's hotel parking ticket
11/27/00: No means yes, yes means more than yes
11/22/00: The bench, the ballot and fairness
11/20/00: Mendocino, how green is your ballot?

© 2000, Creators Syndicate