Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Senate Judiciary Committee
On the Senate’s
consideration of the revised First Step Act
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 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
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
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