President Obama Signs Bill Reducing Cocaine Sentencing Disparity; Hamedah Falls Through the Cracks
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|> THE PERSON
the story behind the sentence
|> THE ISSUE
the unjust crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity
|> THE PRESIDENT
the power of forgiveness
These were the words written by the Honorable Judge Smith Camp, U.S. District Court of Nebraska, after she reluctantly reversed her own ruling, which would have made Hamedah Hasan a free woman. Just five days before, Hamedah and her three daughters were preparing to be reunited after more than 16 years apart while Hamedah served a prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Hamedah and her family were devastated by the reversal, and Judge Smith Camp was not the first judge to condemn her sentence and the criminal justice system's excessively harsh response in Hamedah's case.
Back in 1993, her original sentencing judge, the Honorable Richard G. Kopf, decried the crack sentencing statute under which Hamedah was convicted, yet reluctantly concluded that circuit precedent did not permit him to depart from the sentencing guidelines on the basis of their disparate impact. Judge Kopf recognized that the sad result of circuit precedent was a sentence he believed was profoundly unfair. He concluded his sentencing opinion in Hamedah's case (referring to her by her given name, Stephanie Lomax) with these words:
Insofar as T. Lomax and S. Lomax are concerned, the probable result of this opinion is that these two young people will be sentenced to life in prison. For whatever value it may have, it is my strongly felt opinion that neither T. Lomax nor S. Lomax ought to spend the rest of their days in prison. However, I have not yet found a principled basis for imposing a lesser sentence under the Guidelines. . . . Since my disagreement with these sentences is with many of the normative values underlying them, I am justified only in voicing that disagreement.
Judge Kopf later called on the President of the United States to commute Hamedah's sentence in the interest of justice.
The story behind the sentence. In 1988, Hamedah Hasan was a 21-year-old mother of two, fleeing an abusive relationship in Portland, Oregon. Hamedah tried living in various battered women's shelters in Portland and then in an apartment of her own, but her violently abusive boyfriend continued to track her down. Finally, in the spring of 1989, on the advice of family members, Hamedah went to live with her older cousin Ahad (then known as Tracy Lomax) in Omaha, Nebraska to escape the cycle of violence that had engulfed her in Portland. As Ahad recalls:
"Her boyfriend was a gang member and his main goal in life was to be the best gang member he could be. He beat Hamedah all the time and threatened to kill her. She could not hide from him in Portland he knew where everybody lived. He drank a lot and used drugs. It was not a good environment for Hamedah to raise her kids in, and it wasn't safe for Hamedah either. So she came to me in Omaha."
Unfortunately for Hamedah, Ahad was a drug dealer. After Hamedah moved into a house he rented for her, Ahad started asking Hamedah to to assist with the drug operation. Hamedah knew that the operation was wrong, but, still reeling from her abusive relationship and fearful for her safety, she felt she had no other options to provide for the needs of her young children and reciprocate her cousin's help. Finally, after a little more than a year, Hamedah summoned her courage and returned with her daughters to Portland, where she started a welfare-to-work program and tried to start a new life the life she had always envisioned for herself and her family, one in which she earned an honest living and modeled healthy behavior and self-reliance for her daughters.
But in 1992, after less than two years in Portland, Hamedah was arrested for her past involvement with Ahad's drug operation, despite the fact that she had committed no illegal acts since relocating to Portland. Lacking the financial means to hire a private attorney, Hamedah was appointed counsel with no criminal-law experience. Hamedah's was the first federal drug case the attorney had ever handled. The government wanted Hamedah to testify against her cousin in exchange for leniency, but Hamedah felt that she could not betray a member of her family. In 1993, Hamedah was convicted at trial of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base (crack). Under conspiracy law, someone like Hamedah is held liable for the entire amount of drugs associated with the drug operation regardless of her role.
Although Hamedah, facing a desperate situation, admittedly chose to engage in criminal conduct, the overly punitive crack cocaine sentencing laws required that Hamedah pay far more of a debt to society than anyone believed was fair including the judges compelled to levy and uphold the sentence. Though Hamedah had no criminal record, the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which were mandatory at the time of her sentencing, prescribed a term of life imprisonment.
You be the judge: Is 17 years for a non-violent drug offense enough time in prison for Hamedah Hasan?