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Clergy Call for Clemency
Published on Tuesday, December 12, 2000 in the Cape Cod Times
Clergy Call for Clemency
by Sean Gonsalves
In prison, languishing, but not without hope, is Dorothy Gaines. Gaines, you may recall, is among the 80,000 or so of our fellow Americans serving time in federal prison as a drug offender.

Throw in all those convicted of drug law violations in state prisons and the number of drug offenders incarcerated across these United States climbs to about 500,000 - a tenfold increase compared to the number behind bars for drug offenses in 1980.

Gaines was charged with "conspiracy" to possess and distribute crack cocaine. She was convicted on the testimony of drug dealers who testified against her to reduce their own prison sentences.

A search of her home had turned up no drugs, money or paraphernalia. Even state attorneys declined to prosecute her. But, federal prosecutors - under the mandate of our elected leaders to "get tough on crime" - decided to pursue the case. Gaines, a widowed mother of three, entered federal prison on March 10, 1995, to serve a 20-year sentence!

For a little perspective, it's revealing to note that the number of people locked up in "the land of the free" for drug offenses exceeds, by 100,000, the entire prison population of the 12 nations of the European Union, even though the EU has 100 million more citizens!

"Sometimes our greatest need is not for more laws. It is for more conscience. Sometimes our greatest hope is not found in reform. It is found in redemption." Those are the words of the apparent president-elect George W. Bush, talking specifically about the "redemption" of prisoners in a July 1999 speech.

Undoubtedly, Bush is aware that many federal drug prisoners are serving excruciatingly long sentences of 20 years to life, with no chance of parole, because of 1984 legislation enacted by Congress in the name of the "war on drugs."

In that "Armies of Compassion" speech, Bush acknowledged, "America has tripled its prison population in the last 15 years."

Then he proceeded to say that this unprecedented race to incarcerate "is a necessary and effective role of government - protecting our communities from predators. But it has left a problem - an estimated 1.3 million children who have one or both parents in prison."

Well, it's true that imprisonment has severe consequences for many communities. But it's misleading, to put it mildly, to say that jailing nonviolent drug offenders, the bulk of the prison population, protects us from "predators."

The average federal prison sentence for drug offenders is longer than the average federal prison sentence for those convicted of rape, assault or robbery, according to the U.S. Justice Department. There are even cases of nonviolent drug offenders serving sentences longer than those being served by murderers! Gaines is one of the more well-known examples.

Prisons, Bush said, are "institutions, at their best, (that) treat people as moral individuals, with responsibilities and duties, not as wards or clients or dependents or numbers."

Gaines' federal prisoner number is 05609-003. Right now, more than 600 clergy men and women are petitioning President Clinton to treat low-level, nonviolent offenders convicted under mandatory minimum laws not as numbers but as children of God.

In fact, they are appealing to Clinton's sense of responsibility and duty, formally requesting the president exercise his constitutional power to pardon prisoners during this time of Jubilee.

"We ask you to grant clemency to, and release on supervised parole, those federal prisoners who have served at least five years for low-level, nonviolent involvement in drug cases, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice," the letter says.

In 1994, according to the Justice Department, "there were 16,316 prisoners who could be considered low-level drug law violators."

On July 7, President Clinton commuted the sentences of five prisoners serving time for drug offenses. Will he answer this clergy call for clemency? Would a President Bush? Only with the organized support of people like you and an army of other decent folk joining the clemency campaign.

I don't know how history will judge Clinton or Bush. But I do know how Jesus, and therefore any believer with integrity, judges those unmerciful to prisoners.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus says: "Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison and minister unto you? Then he shall answer them, saying, 'Truthfully, I say to you: In as much as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me'."

What are you doing?

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist.

Copyright © 2000 Cape Cod Times


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