Fact Sheets
Featured Video
  • National Press Club Forum: A 25-Year Vision for Criminal Justice Reform
  • Unlocking Justice: Alternatives to Prison
State Contacts

Serena Nunn

For women like Serena Nunn, associations with husbands and boyfriends involved in drug rings can result in harsher prison sentences. Serena’s story mirrors those of many other women who, because of their minor involvement in drug rings, have little information to trade and are left with little bargaining power with prosecutors. They end up facing excessive time in prison; meanwhile, their male counterparts receive reduced sentences in return for their testimony.

After spending 11 years behind bars, Serena Nunn, now 36 years old, is the proud recipient of a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. However, although her journey to accomplishing this feat has been one filled with determination and persistence, it has also been fraught with injustice and tragedy.

Because of financial difficulties at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Serena had returned home to Minnesota in 1988. There she met and fell in love with Ralph Nunn (no relation), the son of a drug dealer. Her involvement in his drug activities included driving him to meetings with other dealers and taking his messages.

In 1989, only 19 years old at the time, Serena was convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. At the time of her sentencing, she refused to testify against Ralph and because of stringent federal mandatory minimum sentencing policies, Serena, with no prior criminal record and a minor role in her boyfriend’s drug ring, was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in prison.

“I never try to come across as some naïve innocent,” said Serena in a recent interview with the Detroit News, "I just think the punishment should fit the crime. I deserved punishment. But to lock me away for my entire 20s.” The drug ring leader, who had prior drug, rape and manslaughter convictions, was sentenced to seven years because he assisted the prosecution.

Serena’s story mirrors those of many other women who, because of their minor involvement in drug rings, have little information to trade and are left with little bargaining power with prosecutors. They end up facing excessive time in prison; meanwhile, their male counterparts receive reduced sentences in return for their testimony.

Despite the magnitude of her sentence, Serena pressed on. In 1999, she became the first prisoner at a women’s minimum-security federal prison in Phoenix to obtain a community college degree.

Her case garnered support from federal, state and local officials who lobbied for clemency. U.S. District Court Judge David S. Doty, who sentenced Serena, wrote to President Clinton in support of her clemency. He argued: "If mandatory minimum rules did not exist, no judge in America, including me, would have ever sentenced Ms. Nunn to 15 years in prison based on her role in the conspiracy, her age and the fact that she had no prior criminal convictions."

Finally, on July 7, 2000, 11 years into her sentence, Serena was released with a commutation from President Clinton.

Working fiercely to make up for lost time, Serena earned her Bachelor’s degree in political science at Arizona State University in 2002 and then went on to Michigan Law School. Newly equipped with her law degree in May 2006, Serena plans to pursue public interest law or criminal defense.

 Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Thomas, The Detroit News.

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Drug Policy, Women