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Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) speaks alongside Illinois Northern District Chief Judge Rubén Castillo at Rethinking the War on Drugs, a symposium at the Northwestern University School of Law.

Sen. Durbin pushes congressional overhaul of nonviolent drug sentencing

by Lindsey Holden
Feb 20, 2014

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) Thursday advocated for a bill to overhaul federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

“The war on drugs was declared by President Richard Nixon more than 40 years ago,” said Durbin at a drug-reform symposium at Northwestern University's School of Law. “Since then, this war has cost American taxpayers more than $1 trillion and produced more than 45 million arrests.”

During an appearance at the Rethinking the War on Drugs symposium, Durbin spoke on behalf of the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

The bill would overhaul current federal sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders in four ways:


  • Reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
  • Allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences in individual cases
  • Permit inmates sentenced under old drug laws to petition for sentence reductions
  • Direct the U.S. Attorney General to invest in alternative programs

“Spending ever more tax dollars on incarceration means not spending the same amount on more effective alternatives,” Durbin said. Americans’ tax dollars are better spent on “prevention, drug and veterans courts, effective substance abuse treatment and re-entry programs that help offenders get back on their feet.

“If we’re worried about government spending, think about this: It costs an average of $30,000 a year … to incarcerate an individual in the federal system,” Durbin said.

Other speakers were divided in their support for the type of overhaul Durbin advocates. Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance executive director, sees Durbin’s bill as the start of a broader drug policy reform movement. Nadelmann referred to the bill's bipartisan support, citing the fact Durbin is “working here with Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican.”

“This major movement is finally happening, I think,” Nadelmann said.

Peter Bensinger, formerly of the Drug Enforcement Administration, opposed Nadelmann in a panel discussion. He said the solution is not to oppose the criminal justice system but to employ it correctly.

“The solution is using it effectively as a deterrent, as a sanction, as a means to reduce addiction and dependency abuse,” Bensinger said.

But Durbin maintained mandatory minimums are “one-size fits all approaches,” and voters should contact their representatives to express support for the Smarter Sentencing Act.

“Being tough on crime … means being tough on failed criminal justice policies,” Durbin said.