Durbin Discusses Importance of Modernizing Federal Drug Sentencing Policy

Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses

[CHICAGO] – With prison populations skyrocketing over the last several decades and almost half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today discussed the urgent need to reform federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses. Durbin discussed the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill he introduced earlier this year, which would modernize federal drug sentencing laws by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing defendants convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Last month, President Obama highlighted sentencing reform as one of his top priorities—urging Congress to address the inequities in the federal criminal justice system.

“Once seen as a strong deterrent, mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety,” Durbin said. “Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given more authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have been ineffective and cost taxpayers billions. Being tough on crime doesn’t mean simply voting reflexively for ever-harsher punishments, no matter the cost or consequences. Being tough on crime means being tough on failed criminal justice policies.”

“Safer Foundation supports Senator Durbin’s legislation, which will decrease the unnecessary and harsh punishment for non-violent, low- level offenses and help correct a system that has long contributed to mass incarceration,” Victor Dickson, President/CEO of Safer Foundation said. “These changes will prevent many people, especially minority individuals, from unnecessarily entering the prison system or at a minimum bring some rationality to the sentences they receive.”

The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, and almost 50 percent of those federal inmates are serving sentences for drug offenses. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster distrust of the criminal justice system.

The large increase in the prison population has put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is more than 30 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts both inmates and guards at risk. The focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing federal inmates, the cost of which has increased by more than 1100 percent over the last three decades. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementation of the Smarter Sentencing Act would save taxpayers approximately $3 billion over ten years.

Today marks exactly five years since Durbin’s bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law by President Obama. The bipartisan legislation reduced the decades-long disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine from a ratio of 100:1 to 18:1. The Smarter Sentencing Act would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, so that individuals who are still serving lengthy sentences under the old, racially-disparate, and unjust sentencing regime could petition for sentence reductions.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes modest steps in modernizing drug sentencing laws by doing the following: Reducing – but not eliminating – certain mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses; allowing federal judges to sentence below certain mandatory minimums when individual circumstances warrant it; and allowing certain inmates who were sentenced under the old crack-powder sentencing disparity to petition for reductions of their sentences.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is cosponsored by a diverse group of Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and has broad support from law enforcement, faith groups, and civil rights leaders, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Judicial Conference, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAACP, and the ACLU.