: This morning Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa),
chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and coauthor of the Sentencing
Reform and Corrections Act
, delivered the following remarks on the
topic of criminal justice reform to the Friends Committee on National
Legislation, a faith-based advocacy group. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act
is a comprehensive approach
to criminal justice reform that has garnered 28 bipartisan cosponsors in the
Senate and earned a favorable vote of 16-5 in committee.
Remarks by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Senate Judiciary Committee
the Friends Committee on National Legislation
Criminal Justice Reforms
morning. I want to thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.
is a land of many faiths. That diversity is a testament to the freedom of
religion that is enshrined in our Constitution. And it is a source of strength
to our country today. I’m glad that groups like the Friends Committee on
National Legislation work hard to be part of the national debate on a host of
important issues. Our faith groups help us Senators to pay attention to the
better angels of our nature. Those of you who follow Congress know we can use
all the help we can get on that front.
invited me here to talk about criminal justice reform. I’ll be honest: a few
years ago I would’ve been surprised if you’d have told me that I’d be one of
the leading voices calling for sentencing reform and prison reform. You see,
when I was first elected to the Senate, we were in the midst of a drug crisis
and a dramatic rise in violent crime. Illicit drug use was on the rise.
Narcotics trafficking reached unprecedented levels. Violent crime rates went
up. And the crack cocaine epidemic plagued our cities.
worked hard to give law enforcement more tools to deal with that crisis, and so
we put into place tough mandatory minimum sentences to deal with the worst
criminals. Over time those tough sentences got longer, and the mandatory
minimums meant to apply to drug kingpins and violent criminals were
increasingly applied to lower-level criminals.
supported these efforts when they were enacted. And ever since, I’ve
consistently voted to be supportive of law enforcement efforts to fight
crime—especially drug trafficking and violent crime.
if there is one thing that I’ve learned in my career as a legislator, it’s that
it makes sense to revisit and oversee legislative initiatives. We have a duty
to make sure that the policies we enact into law are having the intended effect
and are functioning optimally.
when some of my colleagues approached me with concerns about our criminal
justice system, I agreed to study the issue. What I found was that although
mandatory minimums play a useful role in our justice system, there is a place
for increased judicial discretion so that judges can better take individual
circumstances into account.
minimums can be an effective deterrent to criminal conduct. They’re also an
important tool for law enforcement. Prosecutors use them to encourage criminal
defendants to accept plea deals and to help law enforcement go after drug
kingpins. Mandatory minimum sentences also promote uniformity in sentencing.
They also help make sure that criminals receive similar penalties for their
crimes no matter what part of the country they are in or what judge is assigned
mandatory minimums also come with significant cost, especially when they result
in long criminal sentences. Surveys have shown that most federal judges believe
that mandatory minimums are too severe in some instances. Many judges are
frustrated that they are not better able to take individual circumstances into
account during sentencing. And some believe that mandatory minimums give too
much discretion to prosecutors, and not enough to judges.
increases in mandatory minimums have also resulted in stiff criminal sentences
and a boom in the prison population. When I was elected to the Senate in 1980,
the federal prison population stood at approximately 25,000 inmates. There are
now 183,780 prisoners in the Bureau of Prisons. That means that in a period of
time where the U.S. population has grown by approximately 43%, the number of
federal prisoners grew by more than 630%. We now spend more than $7 billion, or
roughly 24% of the total budget of the Department of Justice, to house our
are a number of reasons for this drastic increase in federal prisoners. There
are many more federal crimes than there used to be. Some would say too many.
But it’s also clear that stiff mandatory minimum penalties have played a key
role in the booming prison population. Recidivism also plays a big role here.
About two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years of
states—the laboratories of our democracy—face similar problems. And some have
taken action. States that have reformed their sentencing regimes and provided
evidence-based programing aimed at reducing recidivism have closed prisons, saved
money, and reduced crime.
studying the issue, I became convinced that these reforms would work for the
federal government too. So I worked with some of my colleagues, namely Senators
Durbin, Lee, Whitehouse, Booker, and Cornyn to create a bipartisan piece of
legislation called the Sentencing Reform
and Corrections Act. This act leaves mandatory minimums in place, but reduces
them so judges have more discretion at sentencing. It improves fairness at
sentencing, and also puts into place programming designed to reduce recidivism.
Taken together, these policies give prisoners a second bite at the apple—a
chance to live a better life when they leave prison.
this bill had significant bipartisan support last Congress, it didn’t advance
to the floor. And when President Trump was elected, many thought that criminal
justice reform was dead.
President Trump has showed a willingness to engage on this issue and to lead
the way forward. He now supports prison reform, and has pushed for a variety of
initiatives that will improve the chances of every federal inmate who leaves
prison. And, at a White House event on Friday, he urged the House and the
Senate to work on a compromise proposal, which he said he would sign into law.
the President’s encouragement, I believe we can reach a deal on criminal
justice reform. For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform.
This is necessary for practical as well as political reasons. First of all,
it’s the right thing to do. Judges should have discretion to make sure that the
punishment fits the crime and that criminal defendants are incentivized to
cooperate with police investigations. Adjusting mandatory minimums for
lower-level, nonviolent criminal offenders also saves a significant amount of
money which can be used to target the worst offenders such as drug kingpins and
states that have seen the biggest drops in crime from criminal justice reform
didn’t just do prison reform. They did sentencing reform too. If we want to see
big public safety gains at the federal level, we have to take a comprehensive
approach. Savings from sentencing reforms also pays for the prison reform
initiatives favored by the administration. Finally, it’s clear that Senate
Democrats won’t support a bill that does not include sentencing reform.
these reasons, I, with the support of my colleagues from both sides of the
aisle—including 28 Senators who are cosponsors of my bill, will continue to
push for a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform.
encouraged by the administration’s attention and leadership on this issue, and
look forward to negotiating a compromise bill in the coming weeks that the
President can sign into law.
you for your interest in criminal justice reform and your support of my bill.