Sen. Dick Durbin

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)

  • April 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A Senate panel sought to shed some light on America’s drone war, which according to various reports by human rights groups has killed thousands of people, many civilians, in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and possible other sites abroad. The drone program launched during the administration of George W. Bush and escalated by the Obama administration has been shrouded in secrecy, and laden with controversy.

    But increased coverage of civilian casualties of the drone strikes have helped spur more interest in the use of Reaper and Predator drones to hunt and kill suspected terrorists. Also a leaked “white paper” apparently summarizing a lengthier document produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), caught widespread attention for its strained analysis to provide the president legal cover for approving the killing of U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of having connections to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

    Before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the hearing, as the first-ever, to “address the use of drones in targeted killing” and said that the DOJ had provided him with the full OLC memos on the targeted killings of American citizens overseas. He noted, however, that he wished the administration would provide all legal documentation on targeted killings involving non-Americans as well. (Click on image for archived webcast of hearing.)

    At the outset, Durbin noted the president’s powers as Commander in Chief are constrained by the U.S. Constitution’s other principles, such as the protections of liberty, including due process. “At times in over the course of history our rules of law have been abused; when this occurs it challenges America’s moral authority and standing in the world.” Durbin also noted that civilian casualties related to the drone strikes can undermine the administration’s efforts to conduct an ongoing war against terrorism.

    Human rights groups and at least one of the committee’s witnesses suggest that the nation’s moral authority and standing have already been compromised by the drone war.

    Peter Bergen, with the New America Foundation, for example cited the significant escalation of the drone trikes and the public perception of those military actions in the places like Pakistan. “At this point, the number of estimated drone strikes from the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan – somewhere between 1,614 and 2,765 – is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration,” Bergen said in his written testimony before the committee.

    Addressing public perception of the drone war, Bergen later noted polling last year in 21 countries “found widespread global opposition to the CIA drone program. Muslim countries such as Egypt (89 percent) and Jordan (85 percent) expressed high levels of disapproval, while non-Muslim countries that are close American allies also registered significant displeasure with the program – Germany and France respectively polled at 59 and 63 percent disapproval.”

    Bergen, and another witness, Georgetown law school professor Rosa Brooks, however, highlighted that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes are hard to determine because of transparency. Brooks cited work by the New American Foundation, claiming that civilian casualties are “slightly lower” than those reported by human rights organizations.

  • April 10, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Though then-presidential candidate Barack Obama often blasted President George W. Bush’s expansion of presidential powers to fight terrorism, once in the White House he quickly embraced those powers which have only swelled during his tenure.

    Earlier this year, Bill Moyers, during a segment, “The Legal and Ethical Case Against Drones,” highlighted a comment President Obama gave early in his first term.

    “Our actions in defense of our liberty will be just as our costs, and that ‘We the People,’ will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security,” Obama said. “Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership.”

    The president’s rhetoric, however, does not mesh with what we are discovering about the ramped up use of Reaper and Predator drones to target suspected terrorists. Reporting by Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times provides insight into the “origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate.”

    Part of the debate includes whether the Obama administration has tossed aside some of the fundamental values the nation cherishes, such as due process and being a defender of human rights globally.

    A “white paper,” leaked earlier this year and made public by NBC is apparently a summary of a lengthier document prepared by a few attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The white paper makes the argument that a high-ranking government official, like the president, can order the killing of a U.S. citizen integral to or associated with al Qaeda abroad if the person poses an “imminent threat of violent attack” against America, the person is unlikely to be captured and that the killing operation would be conducted in accordance with laws governing war.” The OLC white paper also asserts that no court oversight of the administration’s targeted killing regime is required.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will conduct a hearing on April 16* to explore the “constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killings.” According to a statement announcing the hearing, senators will “also explore proposals to increase transparency regarding U.S. drone policy and establish a legal architecture to regulate drone strikes.”

    The administration has endeavored to shroud its policy on drone warfare in secrecy, but release of the OLC white paper and the mounting numbers of civilians killed in drone strikes are making it more difficult to keep the policy under wraps. The ACLU has lodged a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the administration to release the entire memo, for instance.  

    The escalation of drone warfare is likely also not helping Obama’s desire for America to remain a beacon of “global leadership.” As The Times’ Scott Shane reports, since taking office the CIA and military “have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones.”

  • December 14, 2012
    Guest Post

    by Allison R. Brown, a civil rights attorney and President of Allison Brown Consulting (ABC)

    Two years ago, in September 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced an historic partnership within the executive branch of government – the Department of Justice and the Department of Education were joining forces to focus civil rights policy and enforcement efforts on examining and eliminating the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  That partnership created a two-part national conference about the impact of student discipline on the pipeline and also created an inter-agency Supportive School Discipline Initiative.  This week, federal interest in ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” officially grew as the legislative branch opened its doors to discourse about the issue.

    On Dec. 12, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, convened the first-ever Senate hearing on ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Durbin himself provided impassioned and numbers-driven introductory remarks at the hearing, defining the pipeline as a literal and figurative “gateway” out of school and into the criminal justice system that deprives children of their “fundamental right to education.” He lamented the desperate overreach of lawmakers and educators years ago to create zero tolerance policies that, rather than make schools safer, has redefined “rather normal behavior” as criminal activity so that instead of sending children to the principal’s office for misbehavior, students are removed from the educational environment entirely. “The costs are enormous.” And those that pay the most are students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT youth. 

  • September 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In what he called one of the first hearings in a long stretch of time exploring domestic acts of terrorism, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) led a Senate hearing that included testimony from a young man whose mother was shot and killed in August while praying at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. The senator noted early on that the massacre at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek was not an isolated incident, and that acts of violence against Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, and other communities of people are on the rise, and have been for some time.   

    Durbin, throughout the hearing, expressed concern that more action was needed to counter domestic violence targeting groups of people because of hatred toward their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. He cited a 2010 FBI report showing that 6,600 hate crimes were reported in 2010. (That report revealed that a wide swath of communities was targeted by hate crimes. For example, the FBI said 47 percent of the crimes were racially motivated, 20 percent were triggered by hatred of the victims’ religion, 19 percent targeted the LGBT community, and 13 percent were based on ethnicity or national origin.)

    Durbin said those numbers are likely low. “In a 2005 study the Bureau of Justice Statistics believes even those crimes reported are just a fraction of those that actually occur. In the week following the Oak Creek shootings, there were numerous attacks on mosques, including a mosque burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri. A shooting in a mosque in my home state, Martin Grove, Ill., while 500 worshipers were praying inside.”

    “According to the Justice Department,” Durbin continued, “the increase in discrimination against mosques since 2010 ‘reflects a regrettable increase in anti-Muslim sentiment.’ At the same time, African-Americans continue to be targeted by a majority of racially motivated hate crimes. Jewish Americans continue to be victims of religiously motivated hate crime. Latinos are the victims of most ethnically motivated hate crimes and hundreds of LGBT Americans are victims of violent hate crimes every single year.”

    Durbin and others who testified lauded the passage early in the Obama administration of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which encourages partnerships between federal and state law enforcement officials to work more effectively against hate crimes. But the senator and others who testified suggested that more should be done by the DOJ to aggressively investigate hate crimes, to report on hate crimes, and that Congress should do more to help fund preventive measures, such as education and training initiatives for law enforcement officials.

    Likely expecting criticism from lawmakers who might argue that Congress should focus almost exclusively on international born terrorist threats, Durbin said that the government should not and would not lessen its efforts to defeat Al Qaeda. “But we can’t ignore the threat of homegrown, non-Islamic terrorism," Durbin said.

    Also speaking to an international community, some of which conflates protection of free speech with condoning criminal actions, Durbin said, “So let me be clear, under our Constitution we punish criminal acts, not free speech, no matter how offensive or hateful it might be.”