WASHINGTON – President Obama has signed an historic piece of legislation that narrows the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 and for the first time eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
The Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789), unanimously passed by the Senate in March and approved by the House last week, now becomes law at a time when the U.S. Sentencing Commission is reconsidering the legitimacy and effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentencing and ahead of a report on the subject the commission is expected to release in October. As originally introduced in the Senate, the bill would have completely eliminated the discriminatory disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing under federal law. But during the bill’s markup in the Senate, a deal was struck with Republican Senate Judiciary Committee members to simply reduce the disparity to an 18:1 ratio.
“Today is a landmark day in criminal justice. But while the Fair Sentencing Act is an extremely important step, it is also an incomplete step,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “A sizeable sentencing gap still remains and it is time for our country to seriously re-think mandatory minimums and a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. We have momentum now to impose even greater change and we should not lose it.”
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. Before the Fair Sentencing Act, those penalties required 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to invoke equal mandatory minimum sentences. The impact of the disparity fell disproportionately on African-Americans. In recent years, a consensus 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.
“Even as the president signs this bill into law, there is still work to do to address the ripple effects of this unbalanced sentencing policy,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “The remaining disparity is at odds with an American criminal justice system that requires that all people be treated equally. There is still work to be done to remedy this injustice and we urge Congress and the administration to ensure our laws are based on fact and not injustice.”
The bill signed into law by President Obama today will fail to remedy the injustices faced by people like Hamedah Hasan who are already serving their sentences. A mother and grandmother serving the 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a first-time, non-violent crack cocaine conviction, Hassan would be released by now had she been convicted of a powder cocaine offense. Under the new 18:1 sentencing disparity, her sentence will remain unchanged. 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.
“The bill President Obama signed into law today, unfortunately, won’t bring my mom home,” said Kasaundra Lomax, Hasan’s daughter, the oldest of three. “I wrote a letter to President Obama earlier this year asking him to please send my mom home so she can be with us. We really need her. I hope that his willingness to sign this new law means he will seriously consider commuting the remainder of my mom’s prison sentence. Only the president has the power to bring her home now.”