President Barack Obama finally used his pardon power to commute the sentence of a federal inmate, the first such commutation he’s granted since taking office. This prisoner was a victim of the imbalanced crack-cocaine laws in place before the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparities between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine.
Eugenia Jennings was about halfway into her 22 year sentence, a sentence she received for selling 13.9 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer. She pleaded guilty to the charges in 2000 and received the lengthy sentence, in part, because of prior drug convictions.
Thirty-four year old Jennings is a single mother of three from Alton Illinois. Her brother, who testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 2009, said Jennings was addicted to drugs, an alcohol abuser and a victim of sexual assault. He also said she was trying to provide for her three children by selling crack.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) spoke out on Jennings’ case saying her sentence for a nonviolent offense was “overkill”. They are urging the president to look at other similar cases, of which there are many.
Obama also pardoned five people on marijuana related charges, though none of them are currently incarcerated. Jennings’ commutation was the first that Obama had granted for someone actively serving a sentence. He has been criticized for being too stingy with his pardon power, especially when compared with past presidents. His reluctancy is especially surprising to some who saw him as a potential justice advocate when he was running for office.
There are currently thousands of federal inmates serving especially long sentences for crack cocaine offenses. Many will be getting a previously unexpected early release, not because of the president’s commutation power, but because of the Fair Sentencing Act, which Obama did support.
The Fair Sentencing Act sought to make crack laws (at least a little) fairer than they were before. Though the Act didn’t completely level the playing field, it did reduce the disparity. Prior to the act, crack cocaine offenses were sentenced to prison time at a ratio of 100:1 when compared to powder cocaine. Now that ratio is 18:1.
It isn’t clear if this pardon will be the first of many or if the president will continue to deny them by the hundreds. What we do know is that the Fair Sentencing Act will help take care of thousands who were serving unfairly long sentences, despite any intervention by Obama.