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First Step Act: A Team Effort Years in the Making

Statement Floor Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
Passage of the First Step Act of 2018
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
M. President, today is a good day for representative government. A good day for the taxpayer. And a good day for safe streets and strong families.
Last night, by a vote of 87-12, the Senate adopted the First Step Act. Today, the House is expected to send it to the President, who’s waiting with a pen to enact once-in-a-generation criminal justice reform.
The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who’ve put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society.
It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses.
Several decades ago, Congress passed well-intentioned laws imposing harsh mandatory sentences to stop the flow of drugs in our communities. I voted for those laws. But they’ve had some unintended consequences. 
Our prison population has exploded and the taxpayer burden to house inmates has followed suit. Today, taxpayers pay more than $7 billion a year on our federal prison population.  However, despite that high cost, nearly half of the inmates released today are re-arrested.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the last 38 years, I consider myself a law and order Republican. I’m also a taxpayer watchdog. And I believe in the redemptive power of rehabilitation.
So in 2015, I began to take a closer look at our prison and sentencing laws. We needed to make the system work better for the taxpayer, help law enforcement fight crime, and put a stopper in the revolving prison door.
Roughly 95 percent of federal inmates will one day return to society. The bipartisan First Step Act creates recidivism reduction programs to help inmates spend their time in prison preparing for their eventual return to society.
Several states across the country have deployed these education, treatment and training programs.  The result has been a significant decline in recidivism.  This means fewer crimes, fewer victims and fewer tax dollars spent housing inmates.
The First Step Act is carefully crafted to provide opportunities at redemption for low-risk inmates while ensuring that dangerous and career criminals stay behind bars.
It does this through a multi-layer system that filters out dangerous criminals and those likely to commit new crimes.
The bill rewards only those who take personal responsibility for their mistakes—who put in the time and effort to turn their lives around.
It also improves fairness in sentencing while preserving important law enforcement tools.  It reduces some mandatory minimum sentences, but expands their application to include violent felons.
It grants judges additional discretion to sentence low-level, non-violent offenders to less-lengthy sentences so long as they fully cooperate with law enforcement.
Finally, it eliminates the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making. It couldn’t have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We’ve had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other’s point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come.  
Senators Durbin and Lee were instrumental in this effort.  Their interest in criminal justice reform dating back to 2014 inspired the Senate to take a fresh look at our sentencing and prison laws.
Senator Graham, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Cornyn, and Senator Whitehouse have also been with us since the very beginning of this effort.
Senators Booker and Scott both share a passion for criminal justice reform and have been vocal advocates shining a light on the shortcomings and societal impact of our current system.
Credit is also due to our House colleagues Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Nadler, and Congressmen Collins and Jeffries who introduced the First Step Act on the House. And thanks to Speaker Ryan for his support and pledge to bring this to the House floor so quickly.
At every step along the way, we’ve stuck together.  We pitched this bill to our colleagues, and made changes based on their suggestions.  We also relied on the input and expertise from a variety of groups from across the political spectrum.
In the end, this campaign earned the support of several top law enforcement organizations and tough on crime champions like President Trump. I think it’s important to acknowledge the President’s leadership on this issue. When he got involved, he closed the deal and we got this done. He was helped in that effort by Jared Kushner.
Early in President Trump’s administration, I pulled Jared aside to discuss taking up criminal justice reform. He took the issue and ran with it, and helped find a way forward to accomplish something previous administrations have tried and failed to do. Brooke Rollins and Ja’Ron Smith at the White House were instrumental in this effort too.
I’d also like to thank the Majority Leader for staying true to his word and bringing this bill to the floor when we demonstrated support for our effort. I appreciated his support for the bill as well.
And thanks are also due to Senate floor staff on both sides of the aisle, who helped us successfully navigate the bill to final passage.
I want to thank my Senate staff who helped make this possible. Bipartisan compromise is not for the faint of heart, and they’ve stayed true to the commitment that Senator Durbin and I made to each other to move forward, step-by-step, in complete agreement about that path we should take.
I’d like to thank my Judiciary Committee Staff Director, Kolan Davis. Kolan’s steady hand and sound judgment improves everything he’s involved in. I value his counsel today just as I have for the last 33 years.
By my side today is Aaron Cummings, my Chief Constitution Counsel and Crime Counsel. He led the effort to negotiate this bipartisan deal in my office, and worked hard to see it through and to organize a vast coalition of support.
I’d also like to thank Brian Simonsen for his diligent work on this important bill. Our DOJ detailees to the Judiciary Committee Tom Sullivan and Erin Creegan provided sound technical advice. And my sincere thanks also goes to my talented communications team Taylor Foy, Judiciary Committee Communications Director, and George Hartmann, Judiciary Committee Press Secretary, as well as Michael Zona for their dedication to this effort and their successful campaign to educate and persuade so many to support this bill. 
I’m thankful for my personal office staff led by my chief of staff Jill Kozeny. Jill has been my trusted advisor for over 30 years. She is leaving my staff, and I will be sad to see her go. She has been an exceptional leader, solving problems I didn’t even know I had. And she’s done it all with matchless grace and what I like to call “Iowa nice.” I’m also grateful to Jennifer Heins, who keeps me on track and provides sound strategic advice. Their contributions, and those of every staffer who was part of this effort, have been invaluable.  
I’d also like to thank Senator Durbin’s staff, particularly his chief counsel Joe Zogby and his counsel Rachel Rossi. Working with my staff, the White House, and others, they must have closed this deal more than a dozen times. But in the end their dedication, creativity, and effort got it done. 
I want to give particular thanks to the law enforcement groups whose support and input were key to bill’s success, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National District Attorneys Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and Law Enforcement Leaders.
I’d also like to thank the groups that made this effort possible. A diverse and broad coalition of other groups from the ACLU to the American Conservative Union supported the bill. I can’t list all the groups who offered key support, but they included FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network, Americans for Tax Reform, Heritage Action, the Due Process Institute, Faith & Freedom Coalition, R Street, Right on Crime, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Prison Fellowship, and members of an Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition. I will submit a complete list of support for the record.
So this was a combined effort – one on a scale not often seen in Washington these days.  I’m grateful for everyone’s work to bring about these historic reforms.
Together, we’ve taken steps to reduce crime and recidivism.  To strengthen faith and fairness in the criminal justice system. And to signal to those willing to make amends that redemption is within reach. Together we’ve taken an important step to live up to the commitment we make every time we pledge allegiance to the flag: to provide liberty and justice for all.