Elimination of Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Still Needed Despite Passage of 2010 Fair Sentencing Act
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NEW YORK – Federal judges now have the ability to reduce prison sentences for crack-related offenses, including a 27-year term for a 43-year-old grandmother who has been represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hamedah Hasan, who was convicted in 1993 of a first-time, non-violent, crack-cocaine offense, was sentenced under then-existing Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which punished people for selling five grams of crack with the same sentence as those convicted of selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.
This 100-to-one disparity was reduced to 18-to-one under the Fair Sentencing Act enacted last year. In June, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to apply the new sentencing guidelines retroactively, which will provide potential relief to Hasan and others sentenced prior to the passage of the FSA.
Today is the first day federal judges can review applications for reduced sentences from people convicted of crack-related offenses under the FSA guidelines. Under an agreement between Hasan and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska, Hasan’s sentence stands to be reduced to 262 months, meaning she could be released as soon as May.
“Hamedah’s case demonstrates the sad reality that, for too long, our nation’s crack sentencing laws has produced racially skewed and needlessly harsh sentences,” said Jason Williamson, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “Today marks just the first step toward justice that is long overdue.”
The ACLU has represented Hasan in her efforts to win a commutation of her sentence from President Obama: her only legal recourse under previous crack sentencing laws.
More than two decades ago, based on assumptions now known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine were adopted. Under the previous 100-to-one sentencing disparity – the impact of which has fallen disproportionately on African-Americans like Hasan – she would have already completed a less-severe sentence had she been convicted of the same crime involving powder cocaine.
Although Hasan never used violence or drugs, had no previous criminal record and played a peripheral role in the drug conspiracy for which she was convicted, the federal sentencing guidelines at the time prescribed a life sentence. Previous changes in the guidelines later resulted in a reduction of Hasan's sentence to 27 years, which she has served with an outstanding disciplinary and work performance record.
Passage of the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act of 2011, which has been introduced in Congress, would allow the entire statute to apply retroactively so more of those harshly punished under the old law will have the opportunity for relief.
“As important as today is for people like Hamedah and for our ongoing fight to reduce racial disparities and restore confidence in the criminal justice system, still more is needed,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, ACLU senior legislative counsel. “Congress needs to ensure the entire Fair Sentencing Act applies retroactively so that more people serving unfair sentences under the old law can benefit from lower mandatory minimum sentences.”