Laura Washington: A prison policy built on second chances
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Eugenia Jennings never had a chance. Not from the time she was born into poverty in Alton, Ill. No breaks when she was abandoned and sexually assaulted as a child. Her own brother, Cedric Parker, called her childhood “unspeakable.”
By 15, she was addicted to crack cocaine. At 23, she was raising three small children and selling drugs to support them.
She was arrested and convicted for selling small amounts of crack. In 2001, under then-federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, she was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, leaving her children to be raised by her brother.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) heard Parker share his sister’s story before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2009.
Durbin visited Jennings in prison. She had accepted responsibility for her mistakes and become a model prisoner. “A sweetheart of a person,” Durbin recalled in an interview. “She did everything right from the minute they put her in the jail cell. She had an absolutely perfect record.”
But Jennings was paying the price for the lock-‘em-up era, the 1980s, when the crack epidemic and war of drugs slammed down hard, and Congress passed draconian mandatory minimum laws.
Judges had no discretion in sentencing people like Jennings — caught up in poverty and too many bad breaks. No chance.
The federal prison system has exploded. The number of inmates shot up from about 95,162 in 1994 to 207,504 today. Nearly half are there for drug offenses.
Durbin proposed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which eliminated the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine possession and reduced the disparity between the possession of crack and powder cocaine — from 100-1, to 18-1.
On average, under the 100-1 provision, African Americans like Jennings “served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses,” according to the ACLU.
Now Durbin is back with the Smarter Sentencing Act. It reaches beyond the crack/powder disparity to reduce, though not eliminate, mandatory minimums for other non-violent drug offenses.
It would allow federal judges to waive minimums in cases of non-violent crimes and inmates sentenced under the old guidelines can petition the court for reductions, and participate in a recidivism program.
Our one-size-fits-all policy is ruining lives and busting budgets.
In fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Justice Department spent $8.36 billion on prisons and detention. The Smart Sentencing Act would require the agency to plow the savings from reduced incarceration into crime prevention, community policing, substance abuse treatment and reentry.
Warehousing people for non-violent, low-risk crimes makes so little sense that the bill has brought Durbin unlikely allies. Senate conservatives and libertarians like U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, presidential contenders Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are sponsors. Utah Tea Party stalwart Sen. Mike Lee has stepped out as the lead sponsor.
The bill is in negotiations and Durbin hopes that an agreement will emerge in the fall, take its legislative paces and become law by the end of the year.
In 2011, President Barack Obama commuted Jennings’ sentence, at Durbin’s urging. She served 10 years, but got out in time to watch her eldest daughter graduate from high school.
In 2013, she died of cancer at 36.
It’s too late for Jennings. But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that from 2015 to 2024, the Smart Sentencing Act would result in about 250,000 prisoners being released earlier than they would have under the current law.
Many of these prisoners deserve early release. They deserve a chance.
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