Sentencing disparities are an equally inequitable derivative of mandatory sentencing which requires increased sentences for crack cocaine violations, while offering flexible alternatives in cases arising from powder cocaine arrests. Powder cocaine is used by predominantly white middle-class or suburban defendants. More than 71 percent of women in federal prison and 35 percent of female state inmates have been convicted of drug offenses, usually involving crack cocaine, which carries mandatory sentences as long as 25 years for first time offenders.
Moreover, large numbers of women of color convicted of crack offenses have been charged because of relationships with boyfriends, husbands or other significant males who themselves are statistically more vulnerable to police apprehension and racial profiling. Two cases exemplify the numerous other instances of young African American women doing hard time for minor drug involvement. Kimba Smith, a first time offender in Virginia, was unable to bargain with prosecutors because she could offer no information about the drug dealer with whom she was romantically involved. She was sentenced to federal prison for 24 years without possibility of parole–one year for each of her 24 years of age. Dorothy Gaines, a mother of two minor children and guardian of two grandchildren, is serving a 19-year, seven-month federal sentence without possibility of parole. Many believe she was convicted not because of the scant evidence but because she had no information to offer against her live-in male companion.
The Prison Industrial Complex, driven by the momentum of privatized prison construction as an effective rural economic development tool, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It encourages more convictions, larger prison populations and longer prison sentences, even though these prisons increasingly have become warehouses for the mothers of black and brown children. In 1995, over $5.1 billion was allocated for new prison construction by federal and state governments, at an average cost of $58,000 for a medium security cell. Additional incarceration costs for each inmate exceed $30,000 annually, an attractive but diabolical income stream for the prison industry. African American and Latina women shoulder another oppressive weight of the criminal justice system. When fathers, sons, brothers and other potential family providers are locked in the jailhouse, the women and children in their lives are locked in the poorhouse.