Earlier this month, when President Clinton commuted the sentences of five federal drug offenders, spokesman Jake Siewert told the Associated Press, "The president felt they had served a disproportionate amount of time. They received much more severe sentences than their husbands and boyfriends."
That certainly is the case for two of the freed inmates, Amy Pofahl and Serena Nunn. A federal court sentenced Pofahl to 24 years because she was convicted in an Ecstasy conspiracy, reputedly run by her husband, who served no time in U.S. prison after he cooperated with the feds and served four years behind German bars. Serena Nunn was sentenced to 14 years for a cocaine conspiracy run by her boyfriend's father -- double the sentence of one of the ringleaders.
The White House was happy to let groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) praise the administration for freeing "prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses" and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation laud Clinton for freeing "low-level, non-violent, first-time offenders."
But that's not quite true -- not that the White House set out to correct the record.
One of the July 7 Five was a heroin kingpin, Louise Cain House, whose drug ring accounted for "one of the most significant heroin cases this city has ever seen," as U.S. Attorney Stephen B. Higgins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when she was arrested in 1993. According to the Post-Dispatch, House was carrying $1.5 million worth of heroin when she was arrested, and was later sentenced to 15 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia McGarry told me that a child courier -- a young teenage girl -- muled heroin for House's supplier, Elizabeth "Honey" Logan. McGarry explained that, without House, the feds might not have been able to prosecute Logan. A successful appeal reduced Logan's sentence to eight months longer than House's sentence -- which, McGarry explained, "didn't seem really fair." Hence, the decision of the U.S. attorney's office to support House's request for a pardon. House also cited health problems, age and the need to help her family. (House helped her family so much as a heroin kingpin that a son and daughter were charged along with her.)
U.S. attorney offices in Georgia and Kentucky were unable to give background information on the other two, Shawndra Mills and Alain Orozco.
The folks at FAMM are torn about the House commutation. On the one hand, they want to see more pardons from a president who has been rather stingy in handing them out. (Despite draconian federal drug sentencing, Clinton has freed a paltry 21 prisoners -- and more than half of them belonged to the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN.) On the other hand, they don't understand why Clinton helped House when there are so many cases of smaller fish serving too-long sentences. Eight months less than the kingpin served would be a treat for many federal drug offenders who didn't or couldn't snitch on someone else.
Said FAMM's Monica Pratt, "If they truly are concerned about women who are serving disproportionate sentences, there are a whole bunch of them on the FAMM web site, and he could have had his pick."
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation President Eric Sterling noted, "It has almost the classic quality of two wrongs not making a right."
Asked why the administration reduced the sentences of House, Mills and Orozco, Siewert left a message on my voice mail: "It's essentially, these came to our attention." Other cases, he said, haven't worked their way to the White House. "These are the ones that got to the president's desk," he said.
So, that's all one has to do these days -- make it to the president's desk? Then, it seems, it doesn't matter whether you're a terrorist or a heroin kingpin.