Durbin Discusses Landmark Sentencing Reform Legislation

Bill would help relieve overcrowded prisons and curb recidivism

[CHICAGO] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) held a news conference today to discuss a landmark, bipartisan agreement he helped broker in the Senate to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice policy for the first time in a generation.  The bill tackles the mass incarceration that has impacted minority communities across the nation disproportionately and weighed on the nation’s finances.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, introduced by Durbin and a bipartisan group of Senators, would modernize federal drug sentencing policies by giving federal judges greater discretion at sentencing for non-violent, low-level drug crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses 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 bipartisan bill would reduce prison overcrowding, redirect funding to the most pressing law enforcement efforts, and curb recidivism by helping prisoners successfully re-enter society.

“Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars,” Durbin said. “This bill is the best chance in a generation to make meaningful changes in our federal drug sentencing laws.  We cannot squander it.  Congress should pass this bipartisan legislation to relieve our overcrowded prisons, help keep our communities safe, and ensure the integrity of our justice system.”

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will significantly expand the safety valve that allows judges to sentence defendants below the mandatory minimum.  The legislation will also create a new second safety valve that allows judges to sentence a defendant who is otherwise subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum to a 5-year sentence instead.  These safety valve provisions will give judges discretion to exempt thousands of nonviolent drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentences.

The legislation also includes reforms to the most egregious problems in federal drug sentencing.  For example, the bill will make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act, authored by Durbin and signed into law five years ago, reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from a ratio of 100:1 to 18:1. The crack-powder disparity disproportionately affected African Americans, who made up more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. The new legislation would allow more than 6,000 prisoners who were sentenced under pre-Fair Sentencing Act to petition for sentence reductions.

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal prisons, and spending on federal incarceration has increased more than 1,100 percent, growing to more than one quarter of the Department of Justice’s discretionary budget. These runaway expenditures have resulted in fewer resources for state and local law enforcement and crime prevention programs that would make the nation safer.

Along with Durbin, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).