Ex-radical Sara Jane Olson looks toward future

8:23 AM, May 29, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A Twin Cities woman who spent a quarter of a century running from her past, is now looking forward to the future.

Sara Jane Olson rarely grants interviews about her life as a former radical, but she spoke for the first time in a television exclusive to KARE 11 about her new mission and life behind bars.

Olson is a former Symbionese Liberation Army member, the group best known for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Olson spent more than two decades on the run, after helping plant pipe bombs under Los Angeles police squad cars in the 1970s and being involved in a bank robbery where a woman died.

We have been asking Olson for an interview, since as far back as the time of her arrest more than ten years ago. It's no surprise that she said yes now.

That's because Olson, with the help of her neighbor, is trying to get the word out about a cause that's important to her.

"Everyone changes as they get older," says Olson.

Some four decades now separate Olson's life as a mother and grandmother in St. Paul from her time as what so many have described as a radical, even a terrorist.

"We shouldn't be criminalizing people in larger and larger numbers and then making it impossible for them to ever integrate again," says Olson.

Olson is still passionate about public issues. She volunteers and is a graduate student who studies public policy and sociology.

Still, it might be hard for some to separate now from then, and the violent 70's-era images of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Olson spent years as a fugitive, building a life in Minnesota, until she was arrested in 1999.

"I was a fugitive for 24 years...I regret I was caught sometimes. Life was easier as a fugitive frankly. It's harder being an ex-con," says Olson.

Olson served seven years in a California prison for her role with the SLA.

"We lived in rooms, eight women to a room with no regard for whether people were compatible in any manner."

In prison, Olson got to know other women convicted of crimes. She still writes to some of them today and it's their stories, in part, and her own time in prison, that have inspired Olson to champion a new cause.

Olson and her neighbor, attorney Mary McLeod, have petitioned the Obama administration to address sentencing disparities between people convicted of crimes involving crack cocaine and those convicted of powder cocaine related crimes.

In 2010, Congress cut sentences for crack cocaine, but only for future convictions, leaving those already behind bars still serving a longer sentence than what they would have received under new sentencing rules. Olson says underprivileged groups are unfairly affected.

"It focused on the poor and particularly poor people of color and particularly African Americans," says Olson.

"There is absolutely no legal justification for keeping them in prison. It's costly, It's a waste of human life. Their families need them home," says McLeod.

And so, the two friends have posted their petition on line, hoping to get the President's attention. They have the very least attracted curiosity.

"I'm just doing what I always did. Even when I was a fugitive, I was always involved in activism so it's just what I do," says Olson.

"We just decided that we thought this was an important issue and if we could do something to make it more public, then she would deal with the stigma of being my friend and I would deal with the fact that everything rotten that had ever been said about me would be said again."

"I'm happy to be Sara's friend and she's a wonderful neighbor and she paid her debt to society," says McLeod.

We asked Olson about why people should support the petition. Some still consider Olson a terrorist and urge people not to pay attention to her.

"Because so many people in this country have criminal records now because society is being governed by crime," responds Olson.

"Has it affected you at all? Having a criminal record at this point?" KARE 11 asked.

"Well, you know of course it has. But you know, I've lived most of my life without one so I've been fortunate in that way," says Olson.

"Do you feel like you've been able to put pieces back together and live a relatively normal existence since you've been back?" we asked.

"Yes. But then I have the support of friends like Mary, friends that I knew before and my family."

The change to sentencing Congress passed in 2010 actually does apply retroactively for certain people - if the person committed his or her crime before the law passed and was sentenced after.

But this month, one federal circuit court interpreted the law to apply retroactively to all people convicted of crack cocaine offenses before the change was passed. It is too early to tell whether any other federal courts will follow suit.

As for Sara Jane Olson, KARE 11 asked her if she took any responsibility for the violence in her past, which included the death of a woman during a bank robbery. She didn't really answer the question directly, saying only that she went to prison.

You can read the petition on the White House web site. It needs 100,000 signatures in 30 days to get an actual White House review.

(Copyright 2013 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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