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Durbin, Booker Celebrate Fifth Anniversary of the First Step Act on Senate Floor

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, on the Senate floor to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the First Step Act—bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation designed to make our justice system fairer and our communities safer by reforming sentencing laws and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to prepare to re-enter society successfully. The First Step Act was signed into law by then-President Trump in December 2018, and was championed by Durbin, Booker, and U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT).

“I’m happy to come to the floor today with my colleague and friend, Senator Booker of New Jersey, and celebrate this momentous anniversary.  The First Step Act passed the House and Senate by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and was supported by a broad coalition from across the political spectrum, including former President Donald Trump who signed it into law,” Durbin said.  “I was proud to champion this landmark legislation with the help of Senators Booker, Grassley, and Lee.  It took months of bipartisan negotiation and painful compromise.  But the net result was a historic victory that significantly improved our system of justice.  I’m thankful for the tireless efforts of many dedicated advocates who never gave up hope that this law could be passed.”

During his speech on the floor, Durbin shared the story of Eugenia Jennings from Alton, Illinois.  As a child, she was abandoned and seriously abused, and at the age of 15, she started using crack to dull the pain of her life.  At the age of 23, Eugenia was convicted for trading a small amount of crack for clothing for her kids, and she was sentenced to 22 years in a federal prison.  She was a model prisoner while serving her sentence.  While in prison, Eugenia developed leukemia.

“She said to me something that I’ll never forget.  She said to me, ‘I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live, Senator.  But I promise you this: if you can find some way to get me out of this prison to be with my girls, I’ll never do anything wrong again in my life.’  So I wrote a personal note, handwritten, to President Barack Obama asking him to commute Eugenia’s sentence.  He did, just in time for her to see her eldest daughter graduate from high school.  It was the thrill of her life.   Sadly, Eugenia died less than two years later,” Durbin said.  “Her story was tragic in so many ways, but it inspired me to keep working to pass legislation to help other individuals who had been unjustly sentenced by our overly punitive laws.  It became my personal mission to correct these errors and fix a policy that was doing far more harm than good.”

Durbin noted that the reforms made by the First Step Act have been tremendously successful.  Of the 29,944 incarcerated adults released under First Step Act reforms through January 2023, only 12.4 percent have been arrested for new crimes.  By comparison, the overall BOP recidivism rate currently stands at around 43 percent.  To date, there have been 3,980 retroactive sentence reductions and 4,639 compassionate release motions granted.

“The success of the overwhelming majority of individuals released under the First Step Act demonstrates that reducing the population in our overcrowded prisons can be done safely and effectively.  And it is the right thing to do.  It is, however, as it is named, just the first step,” Durbin said.  “To keep making our justice system fairer and our communities safer, we must continue reforming our outdated sentencing laws and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to successfully return.”

Durbin concluded, “When we talk about narcotics and drug crime, to say ‘if we can just get tough, if we can get the message out there that we’re going to impose tough sentences, then they’ll stop using it’ we tried it.  It was a disastrous failure when it came to crack cocaine.  Let’s not just get tough, let’s get smart when it comes to sentencing people.  Let’s realize an addiction is more than just a curse in a person’s life.  It is a medical situation that can be resolved many times.  And we can do it if we work conscientiously and to make America safer.  I hope that Congress takes steps in that direction for more just criminal sentences and wiser responses to the crisis of substance abuse in America.”

Video of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here for TV Stations.

Continuing his efforts to improve the criminal justice system, Durbin has introduced the Safer Detention Act, which would further expand the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release; the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act, which would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted; the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would lower mandatory sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses; and the First Step Implementation Act, which would further advance the goals of the First Step Act, including by allowing courts to retroactively apply First Step Act sentencing reforms.