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Chance at Freedom: Retroactive Crack Sentence Reductions For Up to 12,000 May Begin Today

By Jesselyn McCurdy, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:11pm

Today, Hamedah Hasan can finally apply for her freedom.

Hamedah has been locked up for 18 years serving a prison sentence she never deserved.

When she was 21 years old, she and her two daughters escaped an abusive relationship to live with her cousin. Feeling indebted to this cousin, who was involved in dealing crack cocaine, she agreed to run various errands and transfer money. Though Hamedah never used drugs herself, she was later indicted and convicted for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Despite a previously clean record, the judge had no choice but to issue a life sentence, due to mandatory minimums for crack cocaine and the mandatory sentencing guidelines then on the books.

Hamedah's sentence was later reduced to 27 years. Had she been convicted of an offense involving powder as opposed to crack cocaine, she would never have faced such a harsh penalty. — at the time of her sentencing, the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine was 100-to-1.

Since Hamedah's sentencing, things have changed for the better. Last year, Congress took a major step toward ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system by passing the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced racial disparities caused by draconian crack cocaine sentencing laws.

The FSA made two major changes to federal sentencing law: first, it decreased the disparity between the mandatory minimum sentences for certain quantities of crack and powder cocaine to 18-to-1 by lowering crack sentences; and second, it eliminated the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission then decided to apply the sentencing guidelines under the FSA retroactively. That means beginning today, those who were given an unfairly harsh sentence for crack possession under the old law can now apply for sentence reductions under the new guidelines.

Hamedah will be one of more than 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are African-American — who will have the opportunity to have their sentences for crack cocaine offenses reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.

This is important not only for the many unjust personal stories like Hamedah's, it's also a huge victory in reducing racial disparities and restoring confidence in the criminal justice system. For years, the harsher penalties for crack versus powder disproportionately impacted African-Americans.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has done its part to ensure the sentencing guidelines apply retroactively, and the FSA will go a long way in fixing this longstanding injustice in the future.

But more is needed from Congress to ensure that the entire statute applies retroactively and more people serving unfair sentences under the old law can benefit from lower minimum sentences under FSA.

A new bill, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act of 2011, would do just that. You can help: take action by calling on your member of Congress to support the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act of 2011 now. Without it, many of those who were harshly punished under the old crack cocaine law won't have the opportunity for relief, and an unmistakable inequality in the system will persist.

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