WASHINGTON -- The next few months could be the last chance for a pardon for Dorothy Gaines -- at least her last chance for a pardon before all her kids grow up.
In March 1995, a federal court in Mobile, Ala., sentenced Gaines, 42, to 19 years and seven months behind bars. Gaines had the poor judgment to be involved with a crack dealer. She said that was the extent of her involvement in a local crack ring, but the feds said she was the "go-to girl" in an operation that distributed some two kilograms of crack. Federal prosecutors charged her with being part of a conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Members of the drug ring testified against Gaines in exchange for reduced sentences; she made no deals and was found guilty.
Two men were sentenced to five years and already are out on the street. A ring leader is due for release around 2004. Gaines got the most jail time by far.
She still says she is not guilty. U.S. Attorney J. Don Foster, who took over after his office prosecuted the drug ring, told the PBS series "Frontline" that "There is no doubt in my mind about her guilt." Advocates don't quite buy Gaines' claim of innocence, although they do believe she is the least culpable of the defendants.
If so, Gaines's biggest crime may be refusing to cooperate with the feds.
That's how a woman with no drug priors -- she once was convicted for writing a bad check for $115 -- can get more prison time than a drug kingpin. Thank federal mandatory-minimum sentences, which were supposed to deliver hard time for kingpins, but have been hardest on little fish.
The problem, as Families Against Mandatory Minimums' Monica Pratt noted, is the informant system. "The less you know, the more time you're going to do because the only way to reduce a sentence is trading information," she said. Gaines also was undone by a definition of "conspiracy" that allows the feds to charge people for crimes committed by other people -- not just below them, but also above them.
U.S. Attorney Foster reckoned that Gaines is a "cause celebre," in part because her children have worked hard to let the media know about the personal toll they have paid with mom behind bars. "I have compassion for them," he said. "I feel sorry for her. But she got a fair trial and a fair sentence under the sentencing guidelines."
Foster also noted that there are many unseen victims of drug rings whose pain is the force behind such hard time. And if the public doesn't like those laws, Congress should change them.
Congress should change them. Start with the disparate sentences for powder crack and cocaine. Tracey Hubbard, a Boston lawyer who is helping with the pardon effort, contended that Gaines would have been sentenced to "significantly shorter" time if the drug ring had been peddling powder cocaine instead of crack. Critics point out that African Americans represent about 90 percent of the federal inmates who have been convicted on charges related to crack. .
Next, give federal judges the discretion to sentence nonviolent first-time offenders to reasonable time -- instead of putting them away for decades because they worked for big fish.
Meanwhile, Gaines' son, Phillip, 15, has written desperate letters to his mother's judge and President Clinton. The letters are "heartbreaking," Pratt noted, because the teenager "has faith that the system will work."
To work, it must work soon. As Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation warned, "It is unlikely that an incoming president is going to very quickly commute sentences or pardon prisoners." Especially drug dealers.
His group's Web site, www.cjpf.org, includes the draft of a letter people can send to the White House to let the president know that they want him to commute this unconscionably long sentence.