By Casey Nolen
Alton, IL (KSDK) - An Alton woman is enjoying a homecoming this Christmas - one she thought would take more than twenty years to have. And she is home thanks to President Obama and those who worked to get his attention.
Eugenia Jennings was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison more than 11 years ago on crack cocaine charges. The federal sentence was much stiffer than if she had committed the same crime with cocaine powder.
Congress has since re-written the rules on cocaine sentencing, but the new rules don't apply to those already behind bars.
Working with the non-profit Families Against Mandatory Minimums and with attorneys providing their services pro-bono, Jennings brother took her story to Congress and eventually the President who commuted her sentence in May of 2011 - the first of his presidency.
"I feel privileged," said Jennings sitting in her brother's living room with her two sons and daughter - still wearing her uniform from federal prison because she has yet to buy new clothes.
"I feel like...I was offered a second chance. This is an opportunity for me to shine, help others. Let other people see that you can change. That life isn't that bad. That even though you went through all of these things you can succeed," says Jennings who says she spent her first night at home Wednesday sleeping next to her 17-year-old son who was just five when she was sent to prison.
Supporters who have worked on her behalf for years, believe the 34-year-old mother of three was unfairly sentenced for selling crack nearly a decade ago. Many have argued the harsher crack cocaine sentences unfairly targeted black communities versus cocaine powder crimes more commonly associated with whites.
In 2001 she received a 22 year sentence after selling 13 grams of crack cocaine to a confidential police informant. Jennings says she was trying to trade the drugs for clothes for her children. Her supporters say her sentence likely would have been half of what she received if she were selling the powder form of cocaine.
Jennings was also charged as a career offender because of two minor state drug convictions.
In 2009, many Jennings supporters, including her brother, appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to testify about sentencing disparities with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.
During her time in prison, Jennings says she completed a drug rehabilitation program, got an education and started mentoring young people -- work she hopes to continue, but work that she is putting on hold for the time being while she battles Leukemia.
And while Jennings says she's grateful to be home for her first Christmas in nearly 12 years, her thoughts are with those in situations similar to hers and still behind bars.
"A part of me...my heart is broken."