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The Alton Telegraph: Longer Sentences For Crack Crimes Spur Debate

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Location: Alton, IL

By Sanford J. Schmidt

Cedric Parker of Alton is taking care of his baby sister's 11-year-old boy, and Parker's mother is taking care of her two teenagers.

Parker said his mother is starting to suffer from mild dementia and actually needs help in taking care of herself.

The family has struggled for the past eight years, trying to take care of the children of Eugenia Jennings, who is serving a federal sentence of 22 years for selling "crack" cocaine in Alton.

"She is in Florida now, but they are sending her to Minnesota. In the federal system, they seem to send you as far from homes as they can," Parker said. "The children have seen their mother only once in the past eight years."

Had Jennings been convicted of selling the same amount of powder cocaine, she would have been out of prison by now, taking care of her children herself. The children have been without a mother for half their lives, already, said Parker, a slot machine technician at the Argosy Casino in Alton.

Unless Congress and the president act, Jennings will be in prison another 10 years. Federal law mandates she serve at least 85 percent of the 22-year sentence.

A conviction on a charge of possession of 5 grams of crack carries a mandatory five-year prison term. Someone would have to be arrested with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.

Jennings, who is black and poor, got the same amount of time as would a "drug kingpin," Parker pointed out. Except, the kingpin likely would be a wealthy white person, who might get a break in court because he or she was willing to give up the other associates with whom they are dealing.

The issue has racial implications because civil rights leaders have been saying for years that crack, being cheaper, is more likely to be found among poor populations, and African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the lower income levels.

The street-level dealer, if he or she possesses the powder form of the drug, is more likely to cook it up in the basement, use part of it and sell the rest, Parker said.

Parker testified recently before a U.S. Senate committee studying whether to correct the longstanding, controversial difference between sentences for crack versus powder cocaine.

"Today, she would be getting ready to come home, probably already in the halfway house," Parker testified before the committee."The fact that the 13 grams of drugs that my sister sold were the crack and not the powder form of cocaine surely cannot be enough to justify adding a decade onto an already long sentence," he testified.

He said federal judges and top law enforcement professionals also testified in favor of correcting the disparity.The sentences for crack cocaine were established in 1986, when crack was new and there was a great deal of public concern over the drug.

Parker said he went to testify because of his membership in FAMM, which stands for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who favors correcting the disparity, chaired the committee.

"The dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African-American community," Durbin said. "Eighty-one percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African-American, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are African-American.

"These racial disparities can serve to undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Illinois' senior U.S. senator said. "As the U.S. Sentencing Commission has said, even perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system."

Parker said that neither he nor the members of his group condone the use or sale of illegal drugs, but they do have a problem with the disparity.

He said he was speaking not only for his sister, who has had a clean record in prison and now speaks to youth groups about the dangers of drug abuse, but for all the people who are doing an unjust amount of time in prison.

"We're not saying it's OK to use drugs," Parker said. "We just want equal justice."

He said his sister sold crack cocaine to feed her own habit and to take care of her children. She was never involved in the violence that is associated in the public's mind with the drug trade, he said.

The newsletter of FAMM, Parker's organization, said President Barack Obama's civil rights agenda calls for eliminating the disparities.

Jennings was convicted twice previously of selling small amounts of crack cocaine. Parker said she also declined to testify about any co-defendants because she didn't know anything to testify about.

Those factors landed her in federal court, where she received the stiff sentence.

Madison County State's Attorney William R. Mudge said his office works with federal officials to refer the worst offenders to federal courts. The federal government has greater resources to deal with the worst cases, he said.

Nevertheless, Mudge said, if there is a disparity between sentencing for powder and crack cocaine, he would support correcting it. In the state system, there is no difference in sentences for the possession or sale of the two forms of the drug, he said.

The vast majority of local cocaine charges are handled in state court, under Mudge's jurisdiction, and are treated as Class 4 felonies. Class 4 is the least serious level of felony, punishable by between one and four years in prison.

The majority of crack cocaine cases in state court result in court supervision or probation.

For the first time, the U.S. Justice Department has endorsed the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer announced the Obama administration's position during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs on the effectiveness of the current sentencing structure.

That was the same hearing at which Parker testified.

"Our shocking incarceration rates and the racial disparities in our criminal justice system are human rights issues that we must address," Durbin said. "More than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States, the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world.

"African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Nothing has contributed more to the disparity in incarceration rates between African-Americans and Caucasians than the crack-powder disparity. We must completely eliminate the crack-powder disparity and adopt a one-to-one ratio."

Durbin said one in every 31 Americans is in prison, on parole or on probation, including one in 11 African-Americans. And more than 50 percent of federal inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes.

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