June 22, 2021

Durbin Delivers Opening Statement at Hearing on Federal Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today delivered an opening statement during the “Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine” Judiciary Committee hearing. During his opening statement, Durbin highlighted how the crack-powder cocaine disparity continues to disproportionately impact African-Americans, without any apparent public safety benefit. Durbin also discussed the bipartisan Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, which he and Senator Booker introduced earlier this year. The bill would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and ensure that those who were convicted can petition for resentencing under the new law. Durbin also shared the story of Eugenia Jennings, who was sentenced to 22 years in a federal prison for a nonviolent drug offense.

Key quotes:

“Today, several decades removed from our mass panic over crack cocaine, we know that powder cocaine and crack are simply two forms of the same drug. Make no mistake: both are addictive and dangerous—and once they reach they brain, they produce similar physiological and psychological effects. But while the scientific consensus on crack has evolved over the years, our nation’s drug sentencing policy has not.”

“In the fifty years since President Nixon declared our failed War on Drugs, drug use and drug availability has increased, our nation has endured a crack epidemic, a meth epidemic, and, currently, an opioid epidemic. By now, I hope we all understand that drug addiction is not a choice, and not a moral failing. It is a disease.  Instead of meeting the public health crisis of addiction with care and compassion, we have [met] it with punishment and penalties. The results have been devastating.”

“Today, our nation is home to just over four percent of the world’s population—and about 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. In America, we pride ourselves as the land of the free, but the sad fact is we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Worse yet, the crack-powder disparity has exacerbated the systemic racial inequities in our criminal justice system.  We must bring this injustice to an end. And we can begin by eliminating the crack-powder disparity once and for all.”

“[This disparity] has no basis in science. It’s done nothing to make us safer. It serves only to undermine trust in our system of justice—especially among Black Americans, who are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges than White Americans, even though the drug use is at a similar rate between them.”

“One person I will never forget is a woman – Eugenia Jennings. She was originally from Alton, Illinois. As a child, she was abandoned and seriously abused. At the age of 15, she started using crack to dull the pain of her life. At 23, she was convicted for trading a small amount of crack for clothing for her kids…So Eugenia Jennings, at the age of 23, was sentenced to 22 years in a federal prison for a nonviolent offense.”

“She never gave up hope. While serving her time, she was a model prisoner who did everything asked of her. Years into her sentence she developed a rare and serious form of cancer: leukemia. I’ll never forget the day I personally met her…at the end of it she said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live, Senator. But I promise you this: if you can find some way to get me out of this prison to be with my girls, I’ll never do anything wrong again in my life.’”

“So I sat down and wrote a personal note to a former Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and asked him to commute Eugenia’s sentence. He did, and just in time for Eugenia to see her eldest daughter graduate from high school. She died less than two years later at the age of 36. As we approach the end of the graduation season this month, I’d like us all to think about Eugenia. When she entered prison her daughter was six-years-old. The next time she saw her in the outside world, she was a young woman.” 

“Eugenia’s gone, but there are so many people like her counting on us to eliminate this disparity. Let’s not wait another day.”

Video of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s opening statement is available here for TV Stations.

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