May 22, 2018
For criminal justice bill to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform
NOTE: 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.
Prepared Remarks by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
To the Friends Committee on National Legislation
On Criminal Justice Reforms
May 22, 2018
Good morning. I want to thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.
America 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.
You 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.
We 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.
I 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.
But 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.
So 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.
Mandatory 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 their case.
But 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.
The 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 prison population.
There 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 leaving prisons.
Our 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.
After 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.
Although 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.
But 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.
With 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 violent criminals.
Second, 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.
For 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.
I’m 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.
Thank you for your interest in criminal justice reform and your support of my bill.
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