Dorothy Gaines, the Alabama mom whose story appeared in the September 2000 ESSENCE, is serving nearly 20 years in federal prison on drug possession and conspiracy charges. The evidence: Her boyfriend was a user and connected with a supplier. Dorothy maintains her innocence. Her experience is part of a disturbing trend: From 1986 to 1996, the number of women in state prisons on drug-related crimes rose 888 percent, and a disproportionate number of them are Black.


“The war on drugs today is the new Jim Crow law,” says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which advocates reform of certain federal drug laws. “The federal anti-drug effort has demonstrated a pattern of race discrimination against African Americans as well as other people of color. In 1998, for example, less than 25 percent of people sent to federal prisons for drug offenses were White, when the overwhelming majority of drug users and drug sellers in America are White.”


To date, hundreds of letters have been sent to President Clinton on Dorothy Gaines’s behalf in an effort led by the CJPF. Visit the CJPF Web site at to email a letter to President Clinton or to find out how to mail him a request for clemency for Dorothy.


Here’s how we can fight mandatory minimum sentencing:


   1. Get informed. Check out these other Web sites:

    Families against Mandatory Minimums, which works to reform sentencing laws that remove judicial discretion and improve sentencing guidelines;


    The November Coalition, which advocates for prisoners of the war on drugs,


 The Sentencing Project, an independent source of criminal justice policy information, data and analysis;


# Write to your federal senators and representatives (see sample letter below) expressing your opposition to any new mandatory minimums and support for appeal of existing mandatory minimums. To reach them, go to:, or


# Write to President Clinton–including the signatures of at least 10 friends–and ask him to commute the sentences of low-level, non-violent offenders, via, or at:


President Bill Clinton

The White House

Washington, D.C. 20500

Sample letter:


Dear _____________


I urge you to support laws repealing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. One such law, the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act (HR 1681), introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), will reduce the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks, who make up 13 percent of the population and about 15 percent of drug users, but account for 55 percent of all federal drug convictions.


Mandatory minimum sentences have in some cases led to lengthier prison terms for small-time nonviolent offenders than for some killers. Return to judges the power to use their discretion in determining appropriate punishment.