Leahy On Senate Floor Urges Approval Of The First Step Act, As Senate Begins Debate On Historic Criminal Justice Reforms

Today the Senate is considering perhaps the most significant bill to reform our criminal justice system in nearly a decade.  The First Step Act takes modest but important steps to remedy some of the most troubling injustices within our sentencing laws and our prison system.  It is my hope that this bill represents not just a single piece of legislation, but a turning point in how Congress views its role in advancing criminal justice.

I have been working to bring fairness to our criminal justice system for decades.  For far too long, the legislative response to any and all public safety concerns was as simple as it was flawed:  No matter the perceived ill, we turned to arbitrary and inflexible mandatory minimums to cure it.  That knee-jerk response, I believe, is changing.  The era of mandatory minimum sentencing is coming to an end. 

Today there is growing recognition that one-size-fits-all sentencing is neither just nor effective.  It routinely results in low level offenders spending far longer in prison than either public safety or common sense requires.  And it comes at a steep human cost, especially in communities of color.  It also comes at a steep fiscal cost that leaves us less safe.  The United States houses more prisoners and has higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world.  The cost of housing federal offenders consumes nearly one-third of the Justice Department’s budget.  Because public safety dollars are finite, this strips critical resources away from law enforcement strategies that have been proven to make our communities safer. 

By taking steps to responsibly reduce our prison population, we can both save money and reduce crime.  That is a lesson states across the country have already learned:  Prison rates and crime rates can fall together.  It is past time for the federal criminal justice system to catch up. 

Five years ago, as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and drawing on my own experiences as a prosecutor, I convened hearings and advanced the core pieces of legislation that now form the basis of the First Step Act.  Despite strong bipartisan votes in Committee, at the time some doubted that we had the support needed to ensure passage on the Senate Floor.  Each year since then, an expanding group of dedicated senators and advocates have methodically built support for these reforms.  Today, that support is astounding.  It is not just bipartisan; it is nearly nonpartisan.  And with the efforts of Senator Durbin — who has been championing these efforts as long as anyone — along with Senators Grassley, Whitehouse, Lee, Booker, and others, we now stand poised to pass meaningful criminal justice reform for the first time in a decade.

It is true this legislation does not go as far as I would like.  Far from it.  I support ending mandatory minimum sentencing.  I would prefer we do more to fix racially disparate treatment.  I would like to see the full elimination of the existing crack-powder cocaine disparity — a glaring injustice we must eventually address.  I would like to see a broader judicial safety valve and additional retroactivity.  Any laws that we consider unjust today were just as unjust a day ago, a year ago, or even a decade ago. 

But this is the nature of a compromise.  You do not get everything you want.  And when I look at the scope of the reforms before us today — including a modest expansion of the safety valve, retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, a reduction of some of the most indefensible mandatory minimums on the books, as well as reforms to add evidence-based practices to our prison system and reentry efforts — I believe this is an historic achievement.

The First Step Act also includes my Second Chance Reauthorization Act with Senator Portman. Our bill both extends and improves federal grant programs providing reentry services to ex-offenders.  That includes employment assistance, housing, substance abuse treatment, victim support, and more.  Almost every single offender in our justice system will one day be released.  We owe it to both them and to the communities they will live in to ensure they can lead productive lives. 

In many ways, the First Step Act represents the best of the Senate.  It represents what this institution is capable of when senators listen to each other, and when they come together to solve complex and contentious issues, instead of exploiting them for momentary political gain.  When senators are willing to be patient, to compromise, and to persist through inevitable setbacks, real progress is possible.  

For the remaining members of the Senate who are not yet ready to support this legislation, I hope you will reconsider.  I hope you will review the breadth of bipartisan support, both here in Congress, in the White House, and in the broader stakeholder community.  I hope you will consider why even important law enforcement voices like the Fraternal Order of Police and National District Attorneys Association support this bill.

For the members who do support the First Step Act, I hope that you will continue to work to reform our criminal justice system in the years ahead.  Many of our laws are based on decades-old, misguided assumptions and do not reflect evidence-based practices.  There is still so much work to be done, and injustices and racial disparities to address.

This week we are showing what is possible.  By working together, we can continue to enact meaningful legislation in the years to come that will keep us safe, save money, and prove America is a nation of fairness and second chances.

I urge all members to vote “no” on the amendments to this carefully negotiated compromise, and vote “yes” on final passage.

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