WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2010 - Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother serving her 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a non-violent crime, asked President Obama today to commute her remaining sentence. Hasan's petition was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney, and was accompanied by almost 50 letters of support from prison chaplains, community members, advocates, friends and family. The American Civil Liberties Union represents Hasan in her commutation petition.
"As our nation prepares to celebrate President's Day, I am keenly aware that you – and you alone – Mr. President, have the power to reunite me with my family," said Hasan. "My intention is in no way to diminish the seriousness of my past criminal actions or to deflect responsibility, but simply to ask for a second chance. From everything I have observed, I believe you are a compassionate and just man. I pray that you recognize my redeeming qualities, see my 27-year sentence as excessive and grant me and my family another chance to be together."
Hasan was convicted in 1993 for a first time, non-violent crack cocaine conspiracy offense. Had Hasan been convicted of the same crime involving the powder form of the drug, she would have completed her prison sentence by now. This is because, under federal law, it takes 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence. The impact of this disparity falls disproportionately on African Americans. Although Hasan never used violence, never used drugs, had no previous criminal record and played a peripheral role in the operation, the United States Sentencing Guidelines at that time prescribed a sentence of life in prison. Changes in the Sentencing Guidelines later resulted in a reduction of Hasan's sentence to 27 years, over 16 of which she has served with an outstanding behavior and work performance record.
"Hamedah's case is a textbook example of how our nation's crack sentencing laws have produced racially skewed and unfairly harsh sentences," said ACLU attorney Scott Michelman. "Rarely does a commutation petition offer the president the chance to redeem not just one person but also a larger aspect of our nation's justice system."
In an unusual display of support for a commutation petition by a federal judge, the Honorable Richard G. Kopf, U.S. District of Nebraska, who sentenced Hasan in 1993, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice Pardon Attorney's Office. In it, Judge Kopf said, "…I can say, without equivocation, that Ms. Hasan is deserving of the President's mercy. I have never supported such a request in the past, and I doubt that I will support another one in the future. That said, in this unique case, justice truly cries out for relief."
In June 2009, the Honorable Laurie Smith Camp, U.S. District of Nebraska, called Hasan's 27-year sentence "unreasonable and excessive" and issued a dramatic downward departure to 12 years, time served, which would have freed Hasan. Five days later, Judge Smith Camp reluctantly reversed herself "with profound regret and sincere apology to Defendant, Hasan," ruling that recent changes in sentencing law did not apply to Hasan.
President Obama, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Holder have publicly called for equalization of federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has called for reform of the crack-powder sentencing disparity four times. President Obama's "Blueprint for Change," published soon after he was elected in 2008, stated, "...the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated."
"By granting Hamedah Hasan's petition, President Obama can signal to Congress and to the nation that he's serious about restoring fairness to our criminal justice system," said Michelman.
Legislation is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, H.R.3245, introduced by Representative Robert Scott (D-VA), and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, S. 1789, introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), would greatly reduce or completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between the two forms of the same drug. Even if the proposed reforms pass into law, however, Hasan's sentence will remain intact because the legislation does not explicitly guarantee retroactive application to current prisoners.
Hasan's petition is the first of several in a larger project, dubbed "Dear Mr. President, Yes You Can." The Dear Mr. President Project brings together civil rights advocates, legal scholars, law school clinics, pro bono counsel and others to urge President Obama to depart from the practices of his immediate predecessors and use the pardon and commutation power in a principled way, consistent with his administration's position that the crack Sentencing Guidelines have been far too harsh. The Project also aims to promote the president's clemency power as a means to correct historical injustices.
Baylor Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, who is a founding member of the Project, noted, "President Obama has gone 387 days (and counting) without granting a single pardon or commutation. This makes him one of the slowest-acting presidents in history to exercise the power of forgiveness. Thomas Jefferson employed the pardon power to eliminate the sentences of those convicted under the shameful Alien and Sedition Acts. President John F. Kennedy granted over 100 commutations in less than three years in office. President Lyndon Johnson commuted 226 sentences. It's time for President Obama to revive the noble and necessary function of executive clemency in Hamedah Hasan's case."
Hasan is the mother of three daughters, Kamyra, 16, to whom Hasan gave birth in prison, Ayesha, 21, and Kasaundra, 26. Hasan also has two grandchildren.
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