With son in prison for 19 years, mother pushes for sentencing changes

As a designer to high-profile clients including Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Will Smith, Barbara Bates never thought she'd have to design a plan to get her 25-year-old son out of federal prison.

In December 2007, Kristopher Davis was in Chicago on winter break from college when he received a call that he was wanted for questioning by the Champaign Police Department. 

“I asked Kristopher what he had done,” said Bates.  “He insisted that he didn’t know what the police wanted to talk to him about.”

But Davis was later arrested and transported back to Champaign to stand trial for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana. 

With two prior convictions  for possession of marijuana, federal minimum sentencing laws made him eligible for a life sentence. A judge ultimately gave him a 19-year prison term.

Barbara Bates / By Tunisia Fortson

Last night, with her son only four weeks into his sentence, Bates hosted a rally at her South Loop studio to call for changes in sentencing laws.

"The time does not fit the crime," she told close to 100 friends, family members, community leaders and ex-offenders who had come to support her efforts.

Bates says the current law is unjust and needs to be more reasonable. Her son and other nonviolent offenders are serving long prison sentences that destroy entire generations of a family, she says.

Reflecting on how this situation has impacted her and her family Bates offered a word of advice.  “People need to be aware of how this will affect their lives. It was a wake-up call for everybody. I literally became ill at the sentencing.  I couldn’t believe that my son was going to go to federal prison for 19 years of his life.”

According to the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, in 1986, Congress implemented the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, giving the U.S. Justice Department a powerful tool to attack  drug traffickers -- mandatory minimum prison sentences. Since then, however, the majority of crack cocaine dealers sent to federal prison have been low-level dealers.

The issue led Julie Stewart, whose brother served time in federal prison, to start Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Last night, she took the floor at Bates' event.

“Way too many men and women are being imprisoned when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the Obama administration is reviewing sentencing guidelines, and there is legislation pending on Congress to address the issue.

Bates urged people to join a letter-writing campaign to ensure that legislation passes.

She said Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan has vowed to work with Bates on the matter.

“I’ve spent 23 years as a fashion designer," Bates told the crowd. "That’s not who I am -- that’s what I do.”  “Who I am is a mother who is intent on bringing her son home."