*Washington – On Wednesday The House passed a bill that would make much needed changes to current cocaine sentencing laws and which will now go to President Obama’s desk for signature. The bill, the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789), was unanimously passed by the Senate in March.
As originally introduced in the Senate, the bill would have completely eliminated the discriminatory 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing under federal law.
However, during the bill’s markup in the Senate, a compromise was reached with Republican Senate Judiciary Committee members to reduce the disparity to an 18:1 ratio. The bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine and comes at a time when the United States Sentencing Commission is reconsidering the legitimacy and effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentencing. The commission is expected to release a new report on the subject in October.
“We commend Speaker Pelosi and Congressmen Hoyer, Clyburn, Conyers and Scott who, with the help of the Obama administration, helped this bill pass its final hurdle,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. “Congress has just struck down a mandatory minimum for the first time in history and has sent the correct message that we cannot continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. The passage of the Fair Sentencing Act by both chambers of Congress is an important first step toward finally eliminating the sentencing disparity. However, the bill does leave in place a sizable sentencing disparity that we will continue to work to eliminate.”
More than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are now known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses were adopted. Sentences for crack are currently equivalent to the sentences for 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and the impact falls disproportionately on African-Americans. In recent years, a consensus has formed across the political and ideological spectrum on the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity issue with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama urging reform.
While the Fair Sentencing Act is a positive but incomplete step forward, it will fail to remedy injustices of those who are already serving their sentences. For example, the bill fails to address cases like that of Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother who is serving her 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a first-time, nonviolent crack cocaine conviction. Had she been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, she would be home by now. However, under the new 18:1 ratio, her prison sentence will remain unchanged because the Fair Sentencing Act does not retroactively amend the prison time of those already serving inflated sentences. Hasan has filed a petition with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney asking that President Obama commute her remaining sentence. The ACLU is representing Hasan.
“It’s almost as hard to understand the logical basis for an 18:1 ratio as for a 100:1 ratio. Where did they come up with that number? For me, it’s simple. My mom would be home with me and my sisters by now if she had been convicted of a powder cocaine offense instead of a crack cocaine offense,” said Kasaundra Lomax, Hasan’s daughter, the oldest of three. “This new legislation won’t bring her home any sooner, and while I am happy it will help a lot of other people, my family and I are sad that it won’t help us.”
“Though this legislation is long overdue, it still leaves Americans with a sizable sentencing gap for the same drug. We must ensure that our laws are based on facts and not prejudice,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Many whose lives have been affected by this sentencing disparity will not feel justice, including Hamedah Hasan and her family. The passage of this bill shows Congress understands that reform is needed, but anything less than a fair 1:1 sentencing ratio falls short of a system of justice which requires that all individuals are treated equally. We hope that Congress, the courts and the president will do more to eliminate a sentencing disparity that is patently unjust and wholly unsupported by the facts.”
To learn more about the effort to commute Hamedah Hasan’s sentence, go to: www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org