BOSTON— Not many Americans will recognize the names of Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith on the list of people whose federal prison sentences President Clinton has just commuted. But they should be known because their stories challenge our vision of justice.
Ms. Gaines, a 42-year-old widow with three children, was serving a sentence of 19 years and 7 months. Her trouble stemmed from the fact that she had a boyfriend, Terrell Hines, who became a driver for a drug gang.
In 1993 state prosecutors in Alabama, where they lived, charged them both with drug conspiracy. But they dropped the charges against Ms. Gaines, evidently for lack of evidence that she had done anything significant.
A year later federal prosecutors went after Ms. Gaines. The witnesses against her were drug dealers who had pleaded guilty to running a large-scale crack operation. Their only testimony tying Ms. Gaines to a specific act was that she once delivered three small packets of crack to street sellers. The government's case was really that she tolerated what her boyfriend and his cohorts did.
Federal drug laws carry savage mandatory minimum sentences. The only way to serve less time is to help prosecutors get someone else. In this case the someone else was Dorothy Gaines. By testifying against her, the real villains got sentences as low as 5 years, while she got nearly 20.
Ms. Gaines served nearly six years in prison before the president ordered her freed, and that devastated her family. Her oldest child, Natasha, had to drop out of college to take care of the others; she is now seriously ill. Two younger children, Chara and Phillip, went into declines in school and suffered from depression. Phillip sent President Clinton a letter that is painful to read. ''It's very hard,'' he said, ''growing up without a mom or a dad.''
Families of imprisoned women are always likely to suffer. What makes this and similar drug cases stand out is the inequity of the sentences.
Ironically, one supposed reason for the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress was to make them more equal. In fact they have led to gross disparities. Big drug dealers have a perverse incentive to point the finger at others who are marginally involved, if at all. And mandatory sentences are so grotesquely harsh that some prosecutors and judges get around them by taking pleas to less serious offenses. That was not done for Ms. Gaines.
Kemba Smith was a middle-class college student when she fell in with an older man who turned out to be a drug dealer. He abused her, violently, but she clung to him and took part in his crimes.
A doctor testified at her trial that she was a classic victim of battered woman's syndrome, unable to break from her abuser. But Federal District Judge Richard B. Kellam said, ''I think there isn't a soul alive that can understand how any woman or girl would permit some man to beat on her and then continue to live with him and to love him.'' He sentenced her to 24 years and 6 months in prison.
Both of those women were lucky in the devoted lawyers who took up their cause. George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund worked for years to set Ms. Smith free. A. Hugh Scott, Gregg Shapiro and others at the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart spent hundreds of hours on Ms. Gaines's case.
Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith are examples of the human realities that can exist behind the slogans of the War on Drugs. The so-called kingpins who prey on society deserve condign punishment. But would a civilized system of justice -- a sane system -- impose sentences of 20 years and more on women who were victims as much as perpetrators?
Federal prisons are full of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. A coalition of clergy asked President Clinton to commute all their sentences. In freeing Ms. Gaines and Ms. Smith he made a start, small but meaningful.
The real challenge is for Congress to repeal the mandatory minimum provisions of the drug laws so judges can use the more flexible but still stiff sentencing guidelines. That will be difficult because members of Congress are afraid of being called soft on crime. But some day a president will have the courage to tell us how that harsh rigidity distorts our law.