ST. PAUL, Minn. – Sara Jane Olson, the Minnesota woman who served seven years in prison for her involvement in high-profile 1970s radicalism, is edging back into public life – this time voluntarily – as she and a friend petition the Obama administration to reduce disparities in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
Olson returned to Minnesota after her 2009 parole from a California prison, and lives with her husband in the same St. Paul home where she was arrested in 1999. Once known as Kathleen Soliah, Olson spent 25 years as a fugitive after joining the short-lived Symbionese Liberation Army, the small group best known for the 1974 kidnapping of California heiress Patty Hearst.
Captured in 1999, Olson finally pleaded guilty to helping place pipe bombs under Los Angeles police cars and participating in a bank robbery near Sacramento in which a woman was killed.
Olson and her friend and next-door neighbor, Mary McLeod, filed the White House petition Thursday asking the president to exercise executive clemency for prisoners serving time under now-discarded sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. In 2010, Congress cut those sentences to align more closely with those for powder cocaine, but that only applied to new sentences going forward. The women’s petition says more than 5,000 prisoners are serving time longer than the new rules would require.
Many critics have said the differences in crack and powder cocaine sentences stem from stereotypes of crack as a drug for poor black people while powder cocaine is for rich white people.