“I was one of those types, I treated everyone fair,” Jones said.
He just wishes federal drug laws had done the same.
Jones, who lives in Altanta but was in Orlando this week, retired from the prison system in July 2003 after working for years at the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee. More than a year later, in November 2004, he formed a non-profit group called Advocate4Justice. Based in Atlanta but with an affiliate chapter in Orlando, Jones said his goal is to convince policymakers to reintroduce parole for federal inmates, and to change sentencing laws so that minorities are not disproportionately given tougher sentences in the war on drugs.
“People ask me, ‘Well, why are you doing this?’ “ Jones said. “I’m basically doing this for the mandatory (drug) laws and the mandatory minimum laws. I’m fighting for what is right. These laws are racist laws.”
Jones said he began to see the impact of the tough federal anti-drug laws passed in 1986 while he was working in the federal prison system – in particular the disproportionate longer sentences mandated by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine, as opposed to powder cocaine. Since 1986, there has been a five-year minimum sentence for trafficking 500 grams of powdered cocaine, while that same sentence could be imposed for possession of five grams of crack cocaine. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for mere possession of powder cocaine.
“Crack cocaine is found in minority neighborhoods,” Jones said. “If you get caught with five grams of crack cocaine and you were a minority and you go down to the precinct, they knew if we send your case over to the feds, you’ll automatically get five years in federal prison,” Jones said. “That’s why there were so many minorities in the prison.”
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the disparity. It reflected Congress’s view that crack cocaine was a more dangerous and harmful drug than powder cocaine. That may have been partly the result of the well publicized death of Leonard “Len” Bias on June 19, 1986, a first team All-American college basketball player selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose.
“They decided they wanted to get tough on crime,” Jones said of Congress.
By the mid-1990s, though, many activists were complaining loudly that the sentencing laws were unfair and discriminatory. Eventually the voices got loud enough that Congress started to pay attention, Jones said.
“Congress ordered the U.S. Sentencing Commission to determine whether these mandatory minimum sentencing laws were racist,” he said. “The Sentencing Commission came back in 1995 with overwhelming evidence that these laws they created were overwhelmingly targeting blacks. They voted that the laws were biased.”
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended new Sentencing Guidelines Amendments to establish equity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, while assigning greater weight in drug offense sentencing to factors such as weapons use, violence, or injury to another person. Jones recalls at the time, black inmates in Florida prison he worked at suddenly felt like they had a chance to get their lengthy sentences reduced.
“The inmates were happy and excited,” he recalled. “Then all of a sudden in October 1995, they (Congress) changed their minds, and that’s when all hell broke loose inside the federal prisons. Inmates started setting the prisons on fire and stabbing and killing. I had to take a team into a prison at Marietta, Florida. We called in Jesse Jackson to talk to the inmates.”
But October 1995, he said, was also when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder by a jury in Los Angeles – a verdict that sharply divided Americans along racial lines.
“October 3, 1995 was when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty,” Jones frecalled. “There was a divide in this country. Whites thought he was guilty, and blacks thought he was not guilty.”
That verdict, and the resulting racial tension it caused, may have prompted Congress to reject the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendations, Jones said. He remembers one lawmaker who stood up at the time and “said ‘No, we’re not going to change these laws, keep them in prison.’ “
Dorothy Gaines understands this issue all too well. The resident of Mobile, Alabama was convicted in 1994 of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. She was released early in December 2000, but only because President Clinton granted her a pardon. Since getting out of federal prison, Gaines has become an activist against the disparity in sentencing laws for cocaine.
“I’ve worked on this for 10 years,” Gaines said. “I testified to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. I testified to Congress.”
As part of her testimony, Gaines asked the members of Congress to think about making a chicken for dinner.
“Say you had a chicken and you take that chicken and you cook it in four different ways — barbeque it, fry it, boil it and bake it,” she said. “What it all comes down to is it’s still a chicken, and that’s what it is with crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Why would the penalty for crack cocaine be higher than the penalty for powder? Powder is used for a lot of the household ingredients to make crack.”
The analogy impressed some members of Congress, Gaines said.
“They couldn’t believe I could sit there with details on the chicken scenario,” she said. “But what it all boils down to is it’s a chicken. That’s the same with crack cocaine, and they agreed with that. You can’t have crack if you don’t have the powder. Why is the penalty so hard for crack cocaine?”
Today, Jones has a greater hope for a change, since the Obama administration has taken a fresh look at the issue.
“Things are getting better,” he said. “This administration decided to lower the sentencing guideline. They came up with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and they lowered the standard.”
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Obama last August. It reduces the disparity between U.S. federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio, based on the number of grams of cocaine in possession. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
“it’s the same drug,” Jones said. “Why are they giving people different setnences?”
Still, Jones says he knows a lot of prison officials don’t want to address this issue.
“Every time the inmates invite me to speak in federal prison, I get denied,” he said. “When I go to speak, I try to raise awarenes to their families to help them. They wanted someone to come in and give the inmates hope.”
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