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January 23, 2005 - The Birmingham News (AL)

It's Past Time To Change Mandated Drug Sentences

By Robin DeMonia, Opinion Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Dorothy Gaines can tell you a lot about what's wrong with the criminal justice system -- not what she picked up in a classroom or seminar, but what she learned in a courtroom and prison.

Gaines, of Mobile, was sentenced to almost 20 years behind bars after a jury found she'd played a minor part in a crack cocaine ring. She calls it guilt by association. Her boyfriend was involved with crack, and Gaines refused to help the government prosecute him.

She'd never been in trouble, never used drugs, never dealt them, she said. When officers raided her house in 1993, they didn't find drugs or anything else to suggest illicit activity.

Gaines was snared because of mandated federal drug sentences and co-defendants willing to implicate her for their own benefit. The admitted leaders of the drug ring testified against Gaines -- and got less prison time than she did.

The mother and grandmother is now free -- but only because groups opposed to draconian drug laws took up her cause, and because former President Bill Clinton granted Gaines' long-shot plea for clemency.

Today, she is the Alabama coordinator of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. With the recent court ruling against federal sentencing guidelines, the national group is reminding folks that the guidelines were only a part of the problem.

While the U.S. Supreme Court took some of the sting out of the guidelines -- it ruled that judges must consult them, but not necessarily follow them -- its ruling didn't affect the mandatory sentences that are set out by law and have created awful injustices in the federal court system.

A great example is how federal laws treat crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. A person caught with 5 grams of crack is looking at a five-year minimum sentence. For powder cocaine, the five-year minimum doesn't kick in until 500 grams.

The huge gap has produced great disparity in sentences, with poor minorities getting the lousy end of the bargain.

Even U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor whose heart doesn't usually bleed for criminals, refuses to defend that. Over objections from the U.S. Justice Department, Sessions and fellow Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah tried in 2002 to raise the amount of crack cocaine (to 20 grams) and lower the amount of powder cocaine (to 400 grams) that would trigger a mandatory five-year sentence. It wouldn't have been equal treatment, but it would have been more fair than the current law.

Sessions said he plans to try again to reduce this bias in sentencing. But with some in Congress (including Sessions) dismayed by the ruling on sentencing guidelines, there might be more of a mood to create even more mandatory sentences.

Sessions raises the possibility, and said something needs to be done about the court's "colossal error."

"The court had some frustrations with the sentencing guidelines, and they legislated from the bench, and I don't appreciate it," said Sessions, who was U.S. attorney in Mobile when the guidelines were enacted and believes they were successful in creating more consistent sentences.

Before, he said, a bank robber in one court might get a 25-year prison term while someone in another court might get probation for virtually the same crime. The sentencing guidelines attempted to bring about more uniform sentences by factoring in such things as the type of crime, the effect on the victims, the defendant's record and his cooperation with prosecutors.

Sessions acknowledges it wasn't perfect.

He said Congress should have been doing more all along to review and tweak laws on criminal sentences -- like the disparate sentences for crack cocaine. But now Congress may think it has a bigger job on its hands -- to ensure that criminals get lengthy sentences.

Sessions has more experience than most senators on this issue. Even he said he's at a loss about what Congress should do.

But Dorothy Gaines is a good reminder of what Congress shouldn't do.

Robin DeMonia is an editorial writer for The News. Her e-mail address is

©2005 The Birmingham News. All Rights Reserved.

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