Obama Commutes 22-Year Sentence for Crack Cocaine Conviction

Eugenia Marie Jennings was convicted in 2001 of possession with intent to distribute. She was only 23 years old.

By Jorge Rivas Nov 23, 2011

On Monday the White House announced that President Barack Obama has granted pardons to five individuals, including one woman who was sentenced to over two decades in prison for a crack cocaine conviction. She’ll be released next month, before her prison term is halfway finished.

Eugenia Marie Jennings of Alton, Ill., was convicted in 2001 for possession with intent to distribute 13.9 grams of crack. She had just turned 23 years old and a judge said his hands were tied and reluctantly sentenced her to twenty-years.

Since then, Jennings has turned her life around. In an unsuccessful 2008 court appearance to have her sentence reduced, Jennings explained she had "made incredible efforts toward change to rehabilitate herself and become a productive citizen amongst others." She quit smoking, underwent drug treatment, earned a diploma in a professional electrician program, held down a job in a prison call center, and kept close ties with her children, according to the Huffington Post.

Pardons expert P.S. Ruckman called the move Obama’s "first bold act of executive clemency, and explained its historic significance:

Obama has maintained the stingy clemency tradition of recent administrations. Last December his pardons included a man who’d mutilated coins in the 1960s and a man who’d stolen plywood and nails from a construction site. In May, Obama pardoned eight people whose offenses ranged from running drugs to descrambling satellite TV signals. The mostly minor offenses happened long ago and the offenders had already served their time. A pardon restores a convict’s civil rights but doesn’t clear his or her record.

Which is why commuting a 22-year sentence — for possession with intent to distribute 13.9 grams of crack — is "a big-time decision," Ruckman said. He noted that half of Obama’s pardons have involved drug offenses and that the latest round involved relatively recent cases.

Jennings’ brother, Cedric Parker, became an advocate for reforming drug sentencing laws and testified against mandatory minimum drug sentences before Congress in 2009. "Eugenia was charged in federal court with two counts of distributing crack cocaine. She accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty. The federal prosecutor decided to charge her as a so-called ‘career offender,’" Parker said.

"Her two Illinois state prior convictions for small amounts of drugs were enough to treat her as a major drug kingpin, driving her sentence from the mandatory minimum of five years to a sentence of almost 22 years. My sister was barely 23 years old and the mother of three young children when she was sentenced in January 2001 to over two decades behind bars."

Parker read a statement from the judge, who lamented that he had no choice but to impose a long sentence on Jennings. "Your whole life has been a life of deprivation, misery, whippings, and there is no way to unwind that," G. Patrick Murphy said. "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."

In August, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill that reduces the disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The new law mandates that the ratio in sentencing be lessened to 18 to 1 from 100 to 1 — since 1986, a person convicted of simple possession of crack cocaine has gotten the same mandatory sentence as a person with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine.

In June, before Obama signed new drug reform, Colorlines.com evaluated the drug war on its 40th anniversary. The findings are illustrated below.