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Our 'War' on Unjust Drug Laws

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President Clinton's controversial pardon of tax evader Marc Rich has kept them both in the headlines. But, Dorothy Gaines, one of the 140 people who Clinton pardoned or released from prison, quietly went home. Gaines left prison after serving six years of a nearly 20-year sentence.

The 42-year-old Alabama native had been convicted of possession and conspiracy to distribute cocaine without an iota of real evidence, only the word of a man prosecutors in Mobile had threatened to jail for life for his dealings in the drug trade. He implicated Dorothy in exchange for a reduction in jail time. An Alabama jury convicted her, even though no drugs or paraphernalia were found during a police search of her home. Because of mandatory drug-sentencing laws, Dorothy was ordered to serve 19 years and seven months.

After Dorothy's moving story was told in the September 2000 issue of ESSENCE magazine and on ESSENCE.com (see "Imprisoned Women" below), dozens of ESSENCE readers and visitors responded with phone calls, emails and letters, helping to raise the profile of her case and her chances for clemency.

Life after lock-down

Since her release two days before Christmas two months ago, Dorothy has been living in the cramped, three-bedroom Mobile home of her eldest child, Natasha Easter, 26. The household also includes Gaines' son Phillip Taylor, 16; daughter, Chara Taylor, 17; and Natasha's two children. Natasha, a data processor, supports everyone.

For now, Dorothy's poor health -- a dangerously high blood pressure and 350 pounds,80 gained under the stress of prison life -- forces her to take bed rest. She says she is now vigilant -- paranoid even -- about whose company she keeps, whose home she enters, from whom she will accept a ride by car. "And I talk real fast because we could only be on the phone for 15 minutes at a time," Gaines says referring to the prison restrictions that still haunt her.

Despite the challenges, Dorothy is working to make her family whole again. (Her son has threatened suicide twice; she plans to place him in counseling). She's hoping some generous employer will, despite her prison record, hire her as a nurse's assistant, the work she did before going to prison. One hospital already has denied her application. "I am still struggling to adjust," Dorothy says. "I'm definitely going to fight to get back on my feet."

What you can do to prevent unjust sentencing

Though Dorothy's case is a victory for advocates struggling to change drug-sentencing laws, there is still much work to be done. An estimated 24,000 federal prisoners have legal profiles similar to that of Dorothy, said Eric E. Sterling, one of the lawyers who petitioned for her freedom. "They simply are not organized to fight for their own release," explains Sterling, who is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C, a non-profit organization that agitates for those sentenced under those mondatory rules and lobbies to reform the criminal justice system.

Dorothy's release came as legislators from New York to California reconsider drugs laws that, during a frenzied national war on drugs, have automatically sentenced even non-violent, first-time convicts to jail. But you don't have to be a politician to join the charge against mandatory sentencing. Steps to take:

    * For starters, register to vote and help choose your elected officials, who participate in crucial votes regarding criminal justice policy. To get voter information and a registration form for your state, visit www.dnet.org.

    * Contact your state legislators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to lobby for revamped drug laws and fairer sentences. Go to www.house.gov and www.senate.gov to find your legislators' Web sites. Check out the archived article below, "Imprisoned Women," for a sample letter to send.

    * Check out the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation's Web site for information and updates regarding criminal justice issues, www.cjpf.org.

    * Additional organizations to contact and support include: Families Against Mandatory Minimums, (202) 822-6800, www.famm.org; Lindesmith-Drug Policy Foundation, (202) 537-5005, www.drugpolicy.org; and November Coalition, (509) 684-1550, www.november.org.

Be careful in choosing your associates and those of your children. Like Dorothy, you can be found guilty by association.

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