WEB POSTED 12-01-1999
WASHINGTON—Kemba Smith is a perfect example. So are Tonya Drake and Monica Clyburn. All were caught up in a life that involved drugs. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and when all was said and done they were facing jail time.
In the war on drugs, women are losing in record numbers as they fill federal and state prisons like never before, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project, a private organization committed to finding alternatives to incarceration.
More and more daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts and even grandmothers are whiling away the best years of their lives behind bars. The report said the war on drugs has had a "dramatic and disproportionate impact on women."
"In Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs and Sentencing Policy," the facts speak volumes:
• Drug offenses accounted for half (49 percent) the rise in the number of women incarcerated in state prisons from 1986 to 1996, compared to one-third (32 percent) of the increase in men.
• The number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 888 percent from 1986 to 1996, in contrast to a rise of 129 percent for all non-drug offenses.
• Drug offenses accounted for 91 percent of the increase in women sentenced to prison in New York from 1986 to 1995, 55 percent in California and 26 percent in Minnesota.
• Blacks and Latinos represent a disproportionate share of the women sentenced to prison for a drug offense.
Kemba Smith was a freshman at Hampton University in Virginia. She fell in love with Peter Hall and her life was never to be the same. Unbeknownst to her, he was a notorious drug dealer. One thing led to another and before she could recover from the mental abuse, beatings, threats, lies and fear, Kemba was incarcerated.
She languishes now in a cell facing a minimum mandatory sentence of 24 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, lying to federal authorities and conspiracy to launder drug money.
Tonya Drake was just trying to help a neighborhood friend, who gave her $100 and a package to mail. The overnight mail agency thought she looked suspicious and opened the package. It contained 200 grams of crack cocaine. Ms. Drake was given a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.
"This woman doesn’t belong in prison for 10 years for what I understand she did. … That’s just crazy, but there’s nothing I can do about it," said the judge in her case.
A major recommendation of the Sentencing Project report is repeal of mandatory sentencing laws. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has introduced bill HR 1681, the "Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 1999." It eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession (including the five-year minimum for possession of five grams of crack), distribution, manufacturing, importation and other drug-related offenses.
Not only are women losing the war on drugs, but families and children are losing as well. According to the study, two-thirds of incarcerated women have children under 18 and half the women said their children had never visited them in prison. Numerous children with incarcerated moms were placed in foster care.
Ms. Clyburn and Ms. Drake left behind eight children to be raised by family members with help from welfare agencies.
In addition to repeal of mandatory minimums, the report recommends expanding availability of drug treatment within and outside the criminal justice system, and repealing the denial of welfare and education benefits to persons convicted of a drug felony.
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