ACLU Files Commutation Petition On Behalf Of Man Serving Unjust Prison Sentence For Non-Violent Crime
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|> THE PEOPLE
the stories behind the sentences
|> THE ISSUE
the unjust crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity
|> THE PRESIDENT
the power of forgiveness
Hamedah Hasan could not agree more.
She's serving her 17th year of a 27 year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Had she been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, she would be home with her family right now.
Why is Hamedah Hasan still behind bars?
Two decades ago, at the height of public hysteria over the effects of crack cocaine and based on myths that have since been thoroughly debunked, Congress enacted legislation penalizing crack cocaine offenses 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. This senseless policy has contributed to the skyrocketing incarceration rates and racial inequities that have, shamefully, come to define our criminal justice system. Frittering away taxpayer dollars on overly harsh prison terms for low-level drug offenders is neither fair nor effective, and it is a callous policy our nation can no longer afford.
Established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the now infamous 100-to-1 disparity relates to the amount of crack versus powder cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum prison sentencesmeaning that possession of only five grams of crack cocaine, less than the weight of two sugar packets, would mandate the same five-year minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine.
We now know that crack cocaine is no more harmful than powder cocainethey are pharmacologically the same substance and have a comparable effect on the user. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the physiological and psychoactive effects of crack and powder cocaine are virtually identical. It is wasteful and counterproductive to impose grossly disparate sentences for what are, in effect, the exact same drugsparticularly when society would, in many cases, be better served by mandating treatment, rather than prison, for low-level crack cocaine offenders.
Contrary to its original intent, the 100-to-1 disparity has flooded the courts and prisons with minor players and diverted attention from a proper focus on high-level drug traffickers and violent criminals: More than 60 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants are low-level, non-violent offenders. This is a clear and costly misallocation of limited criminal justice resources that makes career criminals out of countless run-of-the-mill drug users.
In 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans had grown to 49 percent higher than for whites. For while the vast majority of crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic, more than 80 percent of those sentenced for crack offenses in the federal system are African American.
"Making an artificial distinction about a particular form of the same drug is a distinction without a difference and that's bad enough," explained John F. Timoney, Chief of the Miami Police Department, in testimony before Congress. "But when the distinction results in a dramatic disparity in sentencing along racial lines, then that distinction is simply un-American and intolerable. Furthermore, it defies logic from a law enforcement perspective."
As concluded by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), which has on four separate occasions recommended reducing the disparity, "[r]evising the crack cocaine thresholds would better reduce the [sentencing] gap than any other single policy change, and it would dramatically improve the fairness of the federal sentencing system."
While criminal justice experts and advocates have for years documented the colossal waste of money and lives resulting from the 100-to-1 disparity, the time for reform may be close at hand. With government balance sheets nearing the breaking point and treatment alternatives gaining support among the public and policymakers alike, it is increasingly unacceptable to subject a sizable group of petty lawbreakers to unnecessary, unjust and unaffordable terms behind bars.
Hamedah Hasan has already served over 16 years for her non-violent crack cocaine offense, and she has more than 10 years left on her sentence. President Obama can send her home today with the stroke of his pen by commuting her sentence.
> Proposed Senate bill, "Fair Sentencing Act of 2009" to restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing (S. 1789)
> Coalition letter in support of S. 1789
> Proposed House bill, "Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009" (H.R. 3245)
> Coalition letter in support of H.R. 3245
> Kimbrough v. U.S., announcement, allows federal judges to put aside Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine offenses
> Announcement of U.S. Sentencing Commissions' change in crack cocaine Federal Sentencing Guidelines
 Dorothy K. Hatsukami and Marian W. Fischman, "Crack Cocaine and Cocaine Hydrochloride: Are the Differences Myth or Reality?" Journal of the American Medical Association, November 20, 1996.
 B.S. Meierhoefer, The General Effect of Mandatory Minimum Prison Terms: A Longitudinal Study of Federal Sentences Imposed (Washington DC: Federal Judicial Center, 1992), pg. 20.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434).
 USSC, Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, May 2007, pg. 15.
 USSC, Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing (Nov. 2004), pg. 132.