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Sirens & Gavels

Federal crack cocaine laws under fire

A woman spending 27 years in federal prison on a crack cocaine conviction is the first person to seek a pardon from President Obama.

Federal law punishes crack cocaine convictions much more severely than powder cocaine, and Obama has asked Congress to change that. The Sentencing Commission has recommended the current 100:1 sentencing ratio be replaced with a 20:1 ratio.

The law was instituted in 1986, “when authorities feared crack was becoming an epidemic, (but the arguments) were based on faulty assumptions – including that crack users were far more violent and dangerous to the community than powdered-cocaine users,” according to this Associated Press article from April.

The disparity between federal crack laws and federal powder cocaine laws can be seen in the case of Terrence A. “T-Baby” Kinard, the man who caused a stir last November when a U.S. magistrate judge gave him permission to leave jail for Thanksgiving dinner, under the condition his family pay for armed guards. (As you can read here, Kinard’s family rejected the offer.)

Kinard (right) was convicted of possessing 28 grams of crack cocaine after buying it from an undercover detective. Kinard maintains in court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane that he intended to buy powder cocaine, but police provided crack instead.

Police reports included in the federal court file show a confidential informant told police in summer 2008 that he could buy crack from Kinard. When the informant wasn’t able to do so, he told police he could sell powder cocaine to Kinard, and police had him arrange a sale for nine ounces of powder cocaine.

But Kinard never showed up for the buy, and when he called six weeks later, he ended up getting crack, not powder.

One report show the informant told police Kinard wanted “one ounce of cocaine.” In a different report, the detective says Kinard requested crack cocaine.

Had Kinard gotten powder, there would have been no mandatory minimum prison sentence.

“As stated above, from the detective’s own words it appears that he unilaterally made the decision to switch the controlled substance from powder to crack cocaine prior to the controlled buy. This not only served to increase Mr. Kinard’s sentence; it invoked a mandatory minimum,” according to the sentencing memorandum prepared by defense lawyer Kim Deater. “Mr. Kinard again reiterates that he is not innocent and he has pleaded guilty to the charge, however, the detective’s actions evidence reason for concern.”

Kinard is serving 80 months in federal prison. “He is motivated to live a clean and sober life because his addiction has been the root cause of his separation from his family,” according to the memo.

His sentence is barely anything compared to a sentence imposed on Hamedah Hasan, formerly known as Stephanie Lomax, the woman seeking a presidential pardon.

Read the Associated Press story by clicking the link below.


Woman asks Obama to cut 27-year term for crack

MARK SHERMAN - Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — A woman serving a 27-year prison term for a crack cocaine conspiracy is asking President Barack Obama to use his power of forgiveness for the first time since taking office to commute her sentence.

Two federal judges have called the prison term for Hamedah Hasan, formerly known as Stephanie Lomax, excessive and would have imposed a 12-year sentence.

But they were hemmed in by federal law that punishes crack crimes more heavily than those involving powder cocaine.

Now Hasan and a group that includes civil rights advocates and law professors say Obama should use the president’s power, enshrined in the Constitution, to shorten her sentence and address the disparity in prison terms for crack and powder cocaine.

Obama has called for Congress to eliminate the disparity, but the American Civil Liberties Union and others in the group backing Hasan argue that while bills to do that languish on Capitol Hill the president should use the pardon power to bring sentences into line on his own.

Like Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, Obama did not make use of his pardon power in his first year in office.

Clinton ignited a controversy with his last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose wife was a major Democratic donor. Clinton pardoned 396 people and shortened the sentences of 61 others, more than half of both groups in his last few months in office.

Bush pardoned 189 people and commuted sentences for 11 others, including I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Bush spared Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, from serving prison time in the case of the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. But Bush rejected Cheney’s vigorous urging that he later pardon Libby as well.

The group urging Obama to take action on Hasan’s behalf said the president should “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.”

Hasan was convicted in 1993 for her role in a multistate conspiracy to deal crack cocaine. She received a life sentence that was shortened to 27 years. She had no prior criminal record and, had she been convicted of the same crime involving powder cocaine, would have been released from prison by now, her supporters say.

In 1999, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf tried to lower Hasan’s sentence to 12 years, but was overruled by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Kopf is supporting Hasan’s plea to Obama.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp took another look at Hasan’s case and initially agreed to the same term as Kopf, which would have resulted in Hasan’s release. Five days later, however, Camp said the law prohibited her from doing what she wanted.

In her order, the judge said, “This acknowledgment is made with profound regret and with sincere apology to the defendant, Hasan.”


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