In May 2001, the Illinois Senate pushed through legislation to increase penalties for dealing ecstasy, including making it easier to prosecute a dealer whose client died from drug use. That legislation aimed to make dealing ecstasy a class X felony, which would carry a minimum penalty of six years in prison.
“Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, questioned whether Illinois’ drug penalties are appropriate,” reported the Copley News Service, “considering that a person convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint would be charged with the same level of offense as someone convicted of selling 15 doses of ecstasy.”
That same month, Obama “voted against a bill making it easier to impose death sentences on gang bangers,” says the Ryan research.
“People would be eligible for the death penalty if they kill someone to help their gang,” reported The Associated Press. “Under the legislation, gang activity would be one of many possible aggravating factors that trigger a death sentence.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Obama’s opposition, in part, was racially motivated.
“Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who voted against the plan, said it would hit black and Hispanic neighborhoods hardest, and that lawmakers should quit creating tougher criminal penalties on the basis of one or two particular incidents,” reported the Sun-Times.
The Chicago Tribune quoted Obama explaining that his colleagues, unlike him, often vote to toughen gang penalties because of the political risks of doing anything else:
“‘The legislature has a difficult time voting against anything involving the death penalty or anything involving gangs,’ said Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat who opposed the bill. ‘They don’t want to be perceived as coddling gangs.’”
By November 2001, Obama joined Rev. Jesse Jackson for a protest against the easier death penalty sentencing for gang members. Other notables who joined Jackson and Obama at the protest included then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan and Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, according to the Chicago Defender.
The legislation, which months prior had been vetoed by Gov. George Ryan, would be buried in the committee process following Jackson’s protest effort.
When December 2002 rolled around, Obama joined Gov. Ryan yet again in calling for restrained use of the death penalty in Illinois.
Republicans in the state Senate passed legislation that would expand the Illinois Supreme Court’s “authority to review death penalty appeals and to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole if the court determines death is a fundamentally unjust punishment,” reported The Associated Press.
Obama didn’t think the legislation went far enough and voted against the bill.