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Despite Lesser Roles in Drug Crimes, Many Women Receive Longer Sentences Than Men, Children Victimized, Says Minneapolis Star Tribune Report


January 1998

Many women who play minor roles in drug rings receive longer sentences than the men who organize, lead and supply the operations, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune investigative series. For the report, the newspaper conducted computer analysis of 60,000 federal drug sentences from 1992 through 1995, examined 118 court cases in depth and interviewed 55 women prisoners across the country (Joe Rigert, "Drug sentences often stacked against women," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), December 14, 1997, p. A1; Joe Rigert, "Justice blind to children," Star Tribune, December 15, 1997, p. A1; Joe Rigert, "What about a second chance?" Star Tribune, December 16, 1997, p. A1).

The number of women in Federal prison on drug charges has quadrupled since 1987, accounting for about two-thirds of all female Federal inmates. Some women -- often young, nonviolent first offenders -- go to prison for 10 to 20 years. Women are often too loyal, too afraid or do not have enough information to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for shorter sentences. For example, 28-year-old Serena Nunn, sentenced to 14 years in prison for a nonviolent, first offense, assisted her boyfriend in cocaine distribution. The leader of the same large cocaine operation, Marvin McCaleb, who had prior convictions for manslaughter, rape and drug felonies, received a seven-year prison sentence. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from using their discretion, preventing them from considering the woman's culpability in the crime.

Children of incarcerated women suffer dramatically. Judges cannot take parental status into account when sentencing mothers. More than half of all women offenders are caring for minor children, and some are pregnant, when they enter prison. The children of prisoners are forced to live with family members or become wards of the state. Separated from their mothers and moved from their homes, many children retreat into depression or rebellion, drop out of school and get into legal trouble. Others are abused, sexually molested or try to commit suicide. "Absolute gender equity in sentencing has turned out to be a war on children," said Minneapolis Judge James Rosenbaum. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) is planning to look into whether the impact on families should be considered in federal sentencing, said USSC chairman Richard Conaboy.

"The cases of women in prison today is the best example of why we need to allow judges to make the punishment fit the crime," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Stewart added, "We are wasting dollars. We are wasting children's lives. Society doesn't benefit from keeping nonviolent women in prison for 10 years."

The Star Tribune series is available on their web site at:

FAMM - 1612 K Street, NW, Suite 1400, Washington, DC 20006, Tel: (202) 822-6700, Fax: (202) 822-6704, E-mail: FAMM, Web:

USSC - One Columbus Circle, NE, Room 2-500, Washington, DC 20002-8002, Tel: (202) 273-4500, Fax: (202) 273-4529.