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22 years or Less than Half: Will Congress Fix the Crack Sentencing Problem? May 3, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Cedric Parker’s sister Eugenia Jennings is serving almost 22 years in prison because of the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  Her sentence under powder cocaine laws?  Less than half.  Jennings has already served eight.

Parker, a member of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), will testify about the devastating effects of the federal cocaine sentencing disparity before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs on Wednesday, April 29 at 10 a.m.  The committee will hear from other witnesses, including the Department of Justice. On Wednesday, you can watch a webcast of the hearing by visiting http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=3798 .He will also join a group of other constituents from around the United States in visiting members of Congress as part of a national lobby day on Tuesday, April 28.  FAMM and other members of the Crack the Disparity Coalition are sponsoring the lobby day.

Parker is urging Congress to pass legislation to remedy the unwarranted and insupportable crack penalty, which has been law since 1986.  The infamous "100:1 sentencing ratio" dictates that crack defendants receive mandatory minimum sentences identical to powder defendants convicted with 100 times as much drug.  As little as five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same five-year sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, although the two drugs are virtually identical in all important respects.

Eugenia Jennings was barely 23 years old and the mother of three young children when she was convicted for trading small amounts of crack cocaine on two different occasions for designer clothing.  Jennings was charged as a "career offender" because of minor state priors.  She was sentenced in January 2001 to over two decades behind bars.

Had Eugenia been sentenced for powder cocaine instead of crack cocaine, even as a "career offender," her sentence would have been less than half the one she received for crack cocaine.  Today, she would be getting ready to come home, probably already in the halfway house.  Because she was sentenced for crack cocaine she will not be released from prison until 2019.

The sentencing judge was deeply disturbed at the sentence he was forced to impose: "Now is that fair?  No.  It’s not. . . .  But the truth of the matter is, it’s not in my hands.  As I told you, Congress has determined that the best way to handle people who are troublesome is we just lock them up. Congress passed the laws.

FAMM vice president and general counsel Mary Price says:

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands, including many of our members, who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.  FAMM does not oppose punishment; we oppose punishment that is excessive.  We do so as a matter of principle but also because we represent prisoners and their loved ones who suffer the most personal consequences that result from unjust sentencing policies.  At the heart of this debate are people serving long sentences away from their families and loved ones.

"Two decades ago little was known about crack cocaine.  Flawed assumptions about the drug drove Congress to adopt a particularly harsh sentencing structure for crack cocaine when it established new, non-parolable mandatory minimums for a host of drug offenses in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.  Now, those perceptions have been repeatedly disproven and discredited.

"Not only is the crack penalty unwarranted and insupportable, it has also caused great harm. As a sentencing system it punishes small time users and dealers the same or worse than international drug kingpins.  Moreover, it does so in a way that is discriminatory.  The majority of people arrested, convicted and sentenced on crack cocaine charges are African American.  They serve sentences that are on average 23 months longer than those sentenced for powder cocaine offenses.  The end result is not safer streets and drug-free cities, but devastated families and broken, suspicious communities.

"The science, the public, the courts and even the politics support change.  FAMM urges Congress to pass legislation to remedy the insupportable disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences."

FAMM is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to promote fair and proportionate sentencing policies and to challenge inflexible and excessive penalties required by mandatory sentencing laws.
Visit www.famm.org to read Parker’s testimony to the committee (posted in full on Tuesday, April 28 at www.famm.org ) and background on the laws.



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