Unequal Justice: Why Women Fare Worse

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It can be said now, perhaps, that Kellie Ann Mann's first crime was falling in love with a guy like Patrick. Before she met the popular, streetwise boy whose curly, shoulder-length blond hair and swaggering gait sent girls' hearts racing, Mann was just another middle-class Atlanta teenager crossing the rocky terrain of adolescence. Once, twice at most, she toked a joint. Then, she says, one night in 1986, outside Crestwood High School in Roswell, Ga., with Patrick sitting beside her in her new silver Volkswagen Golf, she took her first hit of LSD. "My parents were divorcing, and I guess I was rebelling," says Mann, who was 16 at the time. "Besides, I thought Patrick was all of the things I wanted to be."

As it turned out, Patrick in time came under drug surveillance by federal agents. Mann claims she knew only of Patrick's penchant for using drugs, not selling them. Under Patrick's tutelage, she says, she experimented with acid, cocaine, even heroin, and took to the road for stoned-out trips to Grateful Dead concerts.

But parties, no matter how spirited, always come to an end, and by 1992, Mann had quit both drugs and Patrick and plunged into her studies in anthropology at a college in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mann says it was during this sober period that, as one last favor to her old sweetheart, she made a mistake she will forever regret. She mailed Patrick 30 sheets of LSD that she had bought from a local dealer. "I know people think, 'Here's this middle-class white girl who had everything going for her, and she screwed it up. But I was 21. I was a kid, and I made a poor choice."

Today Mann, 28, is an inmate serving 10 years at Alderson Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security facility tucked away in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. Her story is common among the institution's nearly 800 women prisoners. "It's fairly simple," says Richard Russell, executive assistant at Alderson. "A lot of women here got sucked in with a boyfriend involved in drugs." More than 70% of the inmates at Alderson are, like Mann, first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes serving sentences ranging, in most cases, from 12 months to 14 years.

In the ruckus over mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws, the sharp impact on first-time women offenders is stirring considerable debate. Since 1980 the number of women in state and federal prisons has tripled, to 78,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A major reason is that women, generally small players in drug trafficking, don't possess enough information about the operation to plea-bargain sentence reductions. In many cases they simply refuse to snitch on loved ones and family members or to cooperate by wearing wiretaps or going undercover.

The result is that women drug offenders often wind up with a longer prison sentence than the drug-dealing men they're involved with. In Mann's case, former boyfriend Patrick provided details on various suspected drug dealers and walked free after serving 34 months. (Patrick could not be reached for comment.) "It's unfortunate, but most times women just don't know enough to be helpful and trade information," says Mark Mauer, assistant director of the U.S. Sentencing Project. Monica Pratt, a spokeswoman for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation, puts it this way: "It's America's dirty secret that in so many drug cases the least culpable gets left holding the bag."

To be sure, it's tough to find a criminal--or an advocate for one--who believes his or her punishment fits the crime. And the rippling social consequences of selling drugs in large quantities are so enormous, in both human and monetary terms, that dealers shouldn't go unpunished. But in case after case at Alderson, women appear to have been scapegoats and gofers in the operation rather than the kingpins the law was created to nab. "Nobody should get off scot-free for selling drugs," says Kathy Nelson, 36, a first-time offender and mother of two children, who is serving 10 years at Alderson for helping her husband distribute cocaine and marijuana. "I'm just saying when they're putting up women's prisons faster than Wal-Marts, then we've got a problem."

Before the mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws, judges could use their discretion in considering all the mitigating circumstances of a case. Now, though, first-time offenders like Joanne Tucker, 47, have little chance of getting a break in court. Tucker's troubles began back in 1987, when she was working as a customer-service representative for an insurance agency in Atlanta and her husband Gary opened a garden store selling hydroponic gear for growing plants indoors without soil. Tucker claims she was never involved in the business except for some occasional bookkeeping. That didn't matter to DEA agents. Suspecting that customers were growing cannabis with merchandise purchased at the store, they began trailing the customers home and raiding their houses. Many of those charged with manufacturing marijuana reduced their sentences by testifying that both Joanne and Gary gave them advice on how to grow the drug.

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