FORT LAUDERDALE – Although Bernice Jones’ sister was born with the name Helen, most of her family and friends had a nickname for her.
“Her name is Helen, but every one of us calls her Toni,” Jones said.
And what seems particularly ironic to Jones today is that it was a series of nicknames that she feels got her sister into so much legal trouble.
“She was never involved in the selling of drugs,” Jones said. “She was the girlfriend of a guy who did. And they wanted her to tell stuff on him, and she said she didn’t know the answers to that, so she went to prison on a charge of conspiracy — although she never used drugs, she never did drugs, nothing like that.”
And one reason why Helen Gray couldn’t offer to testify against those street dealers, Jones said, is because her sister never knew the actual names of the men who were selling crack cocaine.
“A lot of those drug people in the street had drug names and she didn’t even know them,” she said.
Today, Helen Gray is serving a 20 year prison sentence on the drug conspiracy charge, and she’s been in federal prison for the past 14 years. Bernice Jones is now working behind the scenes to get her sister released, and the resident of Fort Lauderdale is putting her hope and faith in one person to do right by her sister and correct an injustice: President Obama.
Working through the organization Advocate4Justice, which works on behalf of the rights of inmates and convicted felons, Jones is putting together a clemency petition that will be submitted to the Obama administration, asking that her sister get a commutation of her sentence.
“We feel that she has served 14 years on a 20 year sentence,” Jones said. “For the wrong she has done, she has come to grips with it, and has learned so much about how you should live, and accepted her role and responsibility for what she has done wrong. She has completely changed. She now strongly believes in God, which she never talked about before.
“And,” Jones added, “what is sitting in prison another three or four years going to do that it hasn’t already done?”
She also hopes to put a spotlight on an issue that civil rights activists have been pushing for years: the wide disparity in federal sentencing guidelines for those convicted of selling or distributing crack cocaine versus those who sell powdered cocaine.
“One thing is the unfairness of the case itself,” Jones said. “If it was the real cocaine, the powder cocaine, it never would have fallen under the mandatory sentencing. It was several charges brought against her, but there was only one charge she was found guilty of, and it wasn’t left up to the judge to say how much time she would get.”
The sentence, Jones said, was mandated by federal law, and the judge’s hands were tied. The judge even told her sister’s attorney that he felt the lengthy sentence was unfair, but there was nothing he could do about it, Jones said.
“Ever since she went to prison, we knew that maybe she had done some wrong, because she was a recipient of money that was drug money, and she was spending money she got that way,” Jones said. “But we knew in the bottom of our hearts she is not a druggie and she is a good person. So I started looking into every way I could, what could we do to help her, and we picked up on this last year when President Obama signed the law abolishing the mandatory minimum.”
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was enacted by Congress in 1986, to reflect the view that crack cocaine was a more dangerous and harmful drug than powder cocaine. By the mid-1990s, many activists were complaining loudly that the sentencing laws were unfair and discriminatory. Congress eventually ordered the U.S. Sentencing Commission to determine whether these mandatory minimum sentencing laws were discriminatory, and the commission recommended new sentencing guideline 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.
It eventually led to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in August 2010. 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.
That’s why Advocate4Justice – which has offices in Orlando, Atlanta and North Carolina — is asking for a commutation of sentence for Helen Gray from President Obama. A letter was mailed to the pardon attorney on her behalf this week.
Jones said she truly hopes the president can see a need for mercy in her sister’s case.
“She made herself a convicted felon for doing nothing, by acting stupid,” she said.
“At present what we’re doing is seeking a clemency,” said Vikki Hankins, who runs the Orlando chapter of Advocate4Justice and is the organization’s spokeswoman. “There are various forms of clemency with the federal government. The president can issue a pardon, which pretty much wipes the record clean for someone. But there’s also a commutation of the sentence for a federal inmate who is currently incarcerated that gives the inmate a sentence reduction, which usually results in an immediate release or a release after the decision is made. It’s totally up to the president.”
Hankins said Advocate4Justice believes this is the perfect case for a commutation, considering that Helen Gray has already spent more than a decade in prison.
“We just feel Miss Gray has served 14 years, and that crack cocaine law that came into play in 2010 didn’t apply to her,” Hankins said. “But the clemency applies to anyone who happens to file it. It’s not a matter of law, it’s not a matter of civil rights, it’s a matter of remorse and admitting what a person has done.”
Jones said she and her sister grew up in rural Georgia, and never expected anyone in the family would ever have a run in with the law.
“She was actually arrested in 1995, and went to trial in June 1996,” Jones said.
Helen Gray is now an inmate at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, operated by the Federal Bureau of Prison and located near Coleman, Florida in Sumter County.
“She’s been in Coleman for two years now,” Jones said. “Right now we’re just hopeful. We feel something good is going to come out of this.”
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