Fair Sentencing Act An Important First Step But Sizeable Sentencing Gap Remains

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Mandy Simon, (202) 675-2312; media@dcaclu.org

Fair Sentencing Act An Important First Step But Sizeable Sentencing Gap Remains

WASHINGTON - The
House today passed a bill that would make much needed changes to
current cocaine sentencing laws and which will now go to President
Obama’s desk for signature. The bill, the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789),
was unanimously passed by the Senate in March.

As
originally introduced in the Senate, the bill would have completely
eliminated the discriminatory 100:1 disparity between crack and powder
cocaine sentencing under federal law. However, during the bill's markup
in the Senate, a compromise was reached with Republican Senate Judiciary
Committee members to reduce the disparity to an 18:1 ratio. The bill
also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of
crack cocaine and comes at a time when the United States Sentencing
Commission is reconsidering the legitimacy and effectiveness of
mandatory minimum sentencing. The commission is expected to release a
new report on the subject in October.
 
"We
commend Speaker Pelosi and Congressmen Hoyer, Clyburn, Conyers and
Scott who, with the help of the Obama administration, helped this bill
pass its final hurdle,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the American
Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. “Congress
has just struck down a mandatory minimum for the first time in history
and has sent the correct message that we cannot continue to use a
one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. The
passage of the Fair Sentencing Act by both chambers of Congress is an
important first step toward finally eliminating the sentencing
disparity. However, the bill does leave in place a sizable sentencing disparity that we will continue to work to eliminate.”
 
More
than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are now
known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses were
adopted. Sentences for crack are currently equivalent to the sentences
for 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and the impact falls
disproportionately on African-Americans. In recent years, a consensus
has formed across the political and ideological spectrum on the crack
and powder cocaine sentencing disparity issue with both Presidents
George W. Bush and Barack Obama urging reform.
 
While the Fair Sentencing Act is a positive but incomplete step forward, it will fail to remedy
injustices of those who are already serving their sentences. For
example, the bill fails to address cases like that of Hamedah Hasan, a
mother and grandmother who is serving her 17th year of a 27-year federal
prison sentence for a first-time, nonviolent crack cocaine conviction.
Had she been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, she would be home by
now. However, under the new 18:1 ratio, her prison sentence will remain
unchanged because the Fair Sentencing Act does not retroactively amend
the prison time of those already serving inflated sentences. Hasan has
filed a petition with the Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon
Attorney asking that President Obama commute her remaining sentence. The
ACLU is representing Hasan.
 
“It’s
almost as hard to understand the logical basis for an 18:1 ratio as for
a 100:1 ratio. Where did they come up with that number? For me, it’s
simple. My mom would be home with me and my sisters by now if she had
been convicted of a powder cocaine offense instead of a crack cocaine
offense,” said Kasaundra Lomax, Hasan’s daughter, the oldest of three.
“This new legislation won’t bring her home any sooner, and while I am
happy it will help a lot of other people, my family and I are sad that
it won’t help us.”
 
“Though
this legislation is long overdue, it still leaves Americans with a
sizable sentencing gap for the same drug. We must ensure that our laws
are based on facts and not prejudice," said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU
Legislative Counsel. "Many whose lives have been affected by this
sentencing disparity will not feel justice, including Hamedah Hasan and
her family. The passage of this bill shows Congress understands that
reform is needed, but anything less than a fair 1:1 sentencing ratio
falls short of a system of justice which requires that all individuals
are treated equally. We hope that Congress, the courts and the president
will do more to eliminate a sentencing disparity that is patently
unjust and wholly unsupported by the facts.”
 
To learn more about the effort to commute Hamedah Hasan’s sentence, go to: www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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