Feb 6, 2011

By: Mary Mitchell

Maybe it’s time to find a new way of honoring Black History Month.

Because too often the celebration of storied black accomplishments is overshadowed by the nagging realization that as a group, black people have yet to gain real equality.

For instance, last week a state panel disclosed that African Americans convicted of low-level drug possession charges face prison time at a far greater rate than whites convicted of the same crimes.

The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission found that 19 percent of black defendants charged in 2005 were sentenced to prison, while only 4 percent of white defendants went to prison under the same charges. In Cook County, black defendants arrested for a low-level drug charge were eight times more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.

Fashion designer leads movement

Although the disparity is alarming, this kind of news is easily overlooked. Who is going to advocate for a drug offender except a family member?

That is how an iconic Chicago fashion designer found herself at the forefront of a movement to rescind mandatory minimum sentencing.

“It landed on my doorstep,” said designer Barbara Bates. In 2007, her then 23-year-old son, Kristopher Davis, was sentenced to a 19-year prison term for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and more than 50 grams of crack cocaine.

“My son was not innocent. He made bad decisions and wrong choices. But the sentence didn’t fit the crime. He didn’t kill anybody,” Bates told me.

To educate the public about the negative impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, Bates will host a panel of experts on the topic during Black History Month at 4 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Apostolic Faith Church, 3800 S. Indiana. The event is free and open to the public.

Among the invitees is Kemba Smith, a former college student whose story epitomizes the horrors of mandatory minimum sentencing. Smith was the only child of professional parents and attending a historically black college when she got involved with a drug dealer.

She was indicted in 1994 on drug conspiracy. The first-time offender was sentenced to 24 years in prison. When Emerge magazine revealed Smith’s plight, the story garnered national attention. After Smith served six years, then-President Bill Clinton granted her clemency.

Law won’t help previously sentenced

Last year, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by signing legislation that reduced federal sentences for those caught with crack as opposed to powder cocaine.

Under the old law, a person arrested with five grams of crack could get a sentence of five years in prison, while a person would have to have 500 grams of cocaine to get the same punishment.

But while the change in the law will right what Obama has called a “long-standing wrong” going forward, the new law does not help people who already have been sentenced.

“I got introduced to this issue because of my son, but I am doing this forum because of other people’s situations,” Bates said.

“There are intelligent people out here who don’t know that people are going to jail for these long periods because judges no longer have discretion,” she said. “I want to help educate them.”

Black History Month is still a good time to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made in every facet of life.

In fact, I’m making it a point to take my grandchildren to the Museum of Science and Industry’s “Black Creativity” exhibit. Since the program was established 40 years ago, it has been a showcase for talented African Americans in every field.

But the one thing that all history has taught me is that sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference for countless others.

Black History Month should celebrate past achievements, but also inspire a new generation to tackle today’s lingering injustices.
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