As part of a larger group of term-end pardons and clemencies, President Clinton late last week granted clemency to two well-known drug war prisoners. Kemba Smith, 29, of Richmond, Virginia, served 6 1/2 years of a 25-year sentence before walking out of prison just before Christmas, while Dorothy Gaines had completed 6 years of a 19 1/2-year sentence.
Neither woman played more than a peripheral role in the drug conspiracies with which they were charged. But because of prosecutorial decision-making and mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses, both Smith and Gaines were hammered hard.
Both women benefited from the tireless efforts of friends and relatives, who enlisted the support of drug reform and civil rights groups, which in turn generated stories in the mass media featuring Gaines' and Smith's plights.
Prisoner oriented drug reform groups such as the November Coalition and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) played important roles in mobilizing support for the pardons, but they expressed mixed feelings this week.
The November Coalition's Nora Callahan told DRCNet that the clemencies were only a tiny first step.
"I'm thrilled that Kemba and Dorothy are home," she said, "but did Clinton address the fundamental injustice? No, he just granted a couple of Christmas releases."
FAMM founder Julie Stewart hewed to a similar line.
"We applaud the President for commuting these sentences, but they represent the tip of the iceberg," she said. "There are thousands of low level, nonviolent offenders in federal prison and more are pouring in each day," said Stewart.
Clinton remains in office until January 20th, and Stewart told DRCNet she was optimistic that more pardons or clemencies would come in the next three weeks.
"The chances are very good," she said. "There has been talk about another round of clemencies, and given Clinton's own comments in Rolling Stone about mandatory minimums, I think he will do more commutations."
"He knows they're serving too much time," she added.
Stewart said FAMM will be watching two cases in particular, those of Derrick Curry and Gerard Greenfield. Greenfield, a black man from the Washington, DC, area, was pulled over for going six miles per hour over the speed limit in Utah and sentenced to 16 years in prison for PCP residues. He has already served nearly half that sentence. Curry got 19 1/2 years on federal crack charges even though the FBI admitted he was a flunky and the sentencing judge called him a minor player, said Stewart. He's been in for 7 years after being arrested at age 19.
FAMM also is looking for action on the "safety valve" prisoners, 487 people who could be serving shorter sentences or out of prison altogether if they had been sentenced after Congress adjusted federal drug offense sentencing in September 1994.
"A commutation for these people is a very rational request," said Stewart. "These are all low-level, first time, non-violent drug offenders. People who committed the same crimes later got lesser sentences. Why not redress the inequity through the commutation process?" she asked.
But then Stewart laughed and, in an implicit appraisal of Clinton's political courage, added, "If that happens, it's going to be 11:59 PM on January 19th."
Nora Callahan wasn't impressed with the courage of Clinton's convictions.
"After eight years, he pardons a handful of people and gives an exit interview about sentencing," she snorted. "This is almost a slap in the face. This injustice occurred on his watch."
And, while Callahan applauds each prisoner's release, she doesn't see individual acts of clemency as a real solution.
"There is simply no way we are ever going to screen out injustice by looking at drug cases on a case by case basis the way Clinton did in these cases," she told DRCNet. "We have too many low-level drug offenders serving time as principals because they wouldn't or couldn't give up names for the prosecutors."
"The only way to address the injustice is blanket releases," said Callahan.