Obama pardon seeks to reflect fairer drug policy

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Eugenia Marie Jennings has spent nearly a decade behind bars after being convicted in February 2001 of distributing crack cocaine. But the Alton, Illinois resident is slated to come home a few days before Christmas, thanks to President Obama.

On Monday, Obama granted a commutation of sentence to Jennings, an African-American woman who had been sentenced to 22 years in prison. The president ordered that she be released on December 21st, while leaving intact her eight years of supervised release, plus a $1,750 dollar fine.

President Obama also granted pardons to five other individuals, including three convicted of marijuana-related offenses, according to the White House.

“The president concluded that clemency was warranted for these individuals,” said a White House source, “because they demonstrated genuine remorse for their crimes and remarkable rehabilitation into law-abiding, productive citizens and active members of their communities.”

The timing of the presidential pardons came on the same day that Obama’s top drug policy advisor and other officials unveiled new and updated drug policy initiatives at a press briefing in Washington, D.C. On the agenda were such topics as high drug-related incarceration rates and their disproportionate impact on African-Americans and other communities of color.

“The administration wants to take a different approach,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a veteran law enforcement officer, who now heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He was joined by his deputy director, Ben Tucker and Redonna Chandler, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at yesterday’s meeting. “We can use the bully pulpit of the White House.”

The Obama administration’s strategy is based on the premise that America cannot arrest its way out of the nation’s drug woes, said officials. Alternative approaches are needed, they insist, to break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration.

For instance, last August, the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This criminal justice reform dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, which disproportionately affected minorities.

More recently, the administration advocated for — and the U.S. sentencing commission approved — the retroactive application of these sentencing guidelines. They became effective in November; it means about 12,000 people may have their sentences reduced.

“Addiction is not a moral failing,” said Kerlikowske, who noted that while the president does not favor legalization or decriminalization, he does support “science and research-based” approaches which cite addiction as a chronic disease of the brain — one that can be prevented and treated via public health interventions. “People can be better.”

In the last fiscal year, the Obama administration spent $10.4 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs, versus $9.2 billion on domestic drug enforcement. The new proposals include the expansion of drug courts, which place non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison; implementing the Second Chance Act (which passed Congress with bipartisan support) and provides varied resources as treatment, mentoring and employment to reduce crime; and efforts like having HUD encourage housing authorities nationwide to lease to offenders returning to the community.

These initiatives make sense, said Sue Rusche, President and CEO of National Families in Action, an Atlanta based advocacy group.

“There’s a lot in here that’s new and I welcome it,” she said. “If we are going to combat drug use among young people and others, there’s going to have to be a seismic shift in our thinking.”

The ideas come at a time when record numbers of men, women and juveniles are caught in the web of the justice system — many for drug related offenses.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, some seven million people in the United States are under the supervision of the state and federal criminal justice system; of these, more than two million are incarcerated.

African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses, with consistently higher proportions of inmates in state prison who are drug offenders. Indeed, compared to whites, the numbers of black and Latino offenders is about 50 percent higher.

For states and localities across the country, the costs of managing these populations have grown significantly. Between 1988 and 2009, state corrections spending increased from $12 billion to more than $50 billion annually.

The human toll is even more sobering.

Data shows more than half of state and federal inmates used drugs during the month preceding the offense corresponding to their sentence, while nearly one-third of state prisoners and a quarter of federal prisoners used drugs at the time of the offense.

And the officials noted some African-American parents now consider youth drug use a top concern for young people, ranking higher than gun related crimes, school violence, or bullying.

“The problem is everywhere,” said Ben Tucker. “It’s tearing families apart and places a burden on the justice system.”

Alfreda Robinson is president of the National Women’s Prison Project, a Maryland based non-profit which helps former female offenders rebuild their lives and those of their families and children.

“Advocates have been educating folks that this would save millions of dollars,” said Robinson. “Treatment will help folks get off drugs while lowering the crime rate. We have to begin helping people and investing in treatment before prison becomes an option.. We cannot continue to lock people up as if that is the answer.”