December 17, 2018
Grassley Urges Colleagues to Support Revised First Step Act
Prepared Floor Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
On the Senate’s consideration of the revised First Step Act
December 17, 2018
We’re here today to begin debate on the First Step Act of 2018—the most significant criminal justice reform bill in a generation.
Our country is based on the rule of law. If someone commits a crime, they should be punished. And that punishment should be severe enough to deter others from committing crimes. But for our criminal justice system to serve our society well, it has to do more than punish and deter.
Recidivism rates are far too high and drive crime rates up. In the federal system, 49% of prisoners are rearrested within eight years, and 32% are convicted of new crimes. We must better prepare prisoners to leave behind their criminal past and to become productive citizens when they leave prison. We also need to make sure that criminal sentences are tough enough to punish and deter, but not be unjustly harsh. Sentences should not destroy the opportunity of redemption for inmates willing to get right with the law.
The First Step Act is tough on crime but fair. To tackle the high recidivism rates in our country, the bill establishes evidence-based programming that has reduced recidivism at the state level. The bill provides incentives for inmates willing to put in the work to complete these programs. Under this bill, a prisoner may earn 10 days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation, which they can apply toward pre-release custody. However, access to these incentives is only available to those who pose little risk of committing new crimes.
The First Step Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to implement a risk assessment system to determine an inmate’s risk of returning to crime after prison. Access to the earned time credits is limited to those who pose a minimum or are low risk.
The bill also makes clear that violent and high-risk criminals convicted of certain serious offenses are ineligible for the pre-release custody program. The list of disqualifying offenses includes crimes relating to terrorism, murder, sexual exploitation of children, and gun crimes among others. All fentanyl traffickers are disqualified from earning time credits as well.
The bill also makes sentencing fairer by returning some discretion to judges during sentencing.
Some have called for eliminating mandatory minimums or cutting them back severely. I am a supporter of mandatory minimum sentences to help law enforcement take down criminal enterprises, but I also recognize that there’s some unfairness in how they are sometimes applied.
The First Step Act leaves in place maximum sentences while addressing overly harsh and expensive mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent offenders. Locking up low-level offenders for needlessly long prison sentences diverts resources that are needed elsewhere to fight crime.
To address this, the First Step Act makes a number of changes to sentencing guidelines. First, the legislation clarifies that enhanced penalties for using a firearm during a crime of violence or drug crime should be reserved for repeat offenders of such crimes. That’s what Congress had intended when it created the enhanced penalty.
Second, the bill would reduce the three-strike penalty from life imprisonment to 25 years. The 20-year minimum is reduced to 15 years. The bill also broadens the mandatory penalties, applying them to more of the worst criminals.
Third, the bill provides for more judicial discretion by expanding the existing federal safety valve to include more low-level, nonviolent offenders. Consistent with existing law, a judge cannot apply the safety valve unless the defendant has fully cooperated with law enforcement.
And lastly, the bill allows for the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.
I want to acknowledge President Trump’s leadership on criminal justice reform. Without his engagement, we wouldn’t be here today. He deserves credit for brokering a deal that improves fairness and supports law enforcement.
A tremendous amount of credit is also due to my colleagues in the Senate who helped to forge a bipartisan compromise on a complex issue. I’d especially like to thank my colleague Senator Durbin. He’s been my partner through this entire process. Our bipartisan cosponsors, including Senators Lee, Booker, Graham, Whitehouse, Scott, Feinstein, Cornyn and Leahy, also deserve praise for reaching this deal.
The product of years of negotiating and listening to each other is a bill that will reduce crime, strengthen faith in our justice system, support law enforcement, and give thousands of people a better shot at living a good life. I urge all of my colleagues to join with President Trump and our bipartisan coalition of supporters to support the First Step Act.
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