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With the Stroke of a Pen, a Fairer Criminal Justice System

Jennifer Bellamy,
Senior Legislative Counsel
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August 3, 2010

Earlier this morning, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This legislation will vastly reduce the infamous and discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and, for the first time since the Nixon administration, eliminates a mandatory minimum sentence — in this case for simple possession of crack cocaine.

This new law will help to restore some semblance of fairness, indeed justice, to what had been one of the most dysfunctional and needlessly cruel aspects of the federal criminal justice system. Up until this point, a person charged with possessing a mere five grams of crack — roughly the weight of two pennies – could receive a five-year mandatory sentence. With such laws on the books, it is little wonder why the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

While this new federal law goes a long way to correct the injustice of this sentencing disparity, crack cocaine will still — without scientific justification — be punished more harshly than the powder form of the drug. The ACLU is committed to working to see the eventual total elimination of this unjust disparity.

Additionally, we are committed to working for commutations of men and women like Hamedah Hasan, who were given unimaginably harsh sentences under the previous sentencing regime. Hamedah is a mother and grandmother currently serving the 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a first-time, nonviolent crack cocaine conviction. Despite the new federal law, her sentence will remain unchanged. The ACLU is representing Hamedah in her commutation request.

President Obama has signed into law legislation that will restore some basic fairness to our criminal justice system. It is also critical that he use his commutation powers to correct egregious miscarriages of justice. A good place to start is with a mother and grandmother named Hamedah.

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