Q&A: First Step Act
With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: Why do you support the First Step Act?
A: This bipartisan legislation would make historic reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system to restore fairness, strengthen public safety and reduce crime. The vast majority of prison inmates will one day be released back into our communities after serving their sentence. Unfortunately, too often, many of them go on to commit additional crimes, victimizing other Americans and costing taxpayers even more in incarceration costs. It is in everyone’s best interest to equip inmates with the skills and training needed to be become productive citizens, rather than returning to a life of crime.
One of the most fundamental functions of government is keeping our streets safe. Elected representatives in Congress also have a responsibility to ensure tax dollars are spent effectively and efficiently, and to ensure that public policies are working as Congress intended. For several years now, I’ve taken a deep dive into the mechanics of our criminal justice system, specifically zeroing in on the effectiveness of federal criminal sentencing laws. I’ve listened to a broad range of views, including family members of both victims and inmates; advocates for victims’ rights and advocates for social justice; law enforcement officials; officers of the court and crime prevention and rehabilitation specialists; as well as faith-based leaders. After countless conversations, including testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’ve reached the conclusion that reforms are needed to fix flaws in the system. The tough federal sentencing laws on the books aren’t doing enough to reduce crime or stop the flow of illegal drugs and addiction that are destroying families and communities. They certainly haven’t solved the issue of repeat offenders. Too many inmates leave prison only to fall back into a life of crime. We can and must do better to give those who have paid their debt to society a meaningful chance for a fresh start that lasts.
The First Step Act would enact historic reforms that are aimed at restoring fairness for all Americans. This landmark legislation restores fairness in sentencing by ensuring that penalties fit their crimes; gives low-level, non-violent offenders a better chance to turn over a new leaf upon release from prison; and ultimately, reduces crime and make our streets and neighborhoods safer. It allows law enforcement to focus resources on the most serious offenders and helps put an end to the rinse and repeat cycle of recidivism.
Q: Will this Congress pass the First Step Act before it adjourns in December?
A: Our efforts to advance this once-in-a-generation opportunity got a big boost in November when President Trump threw his support behind our bipartisan, bicameral bill. Widely known for his strong stance on law and order and border security, the president’s green light is key to securing final passage.
Many Americans have expressed discontent about partisanship and gridlock in Congress. It’s not easy to get lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum to join forces. Working with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and others in the U.S. Senate, we have developed a bipartisan agreement that doesn’t compromise our shared principles of safe streets, fairness and justice. It’s earned the support of key advocacy groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police Specifically, our bill would recalibrate mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent offenders; give judges more discretion to set sentencing for low-level drug crimes when the offender cooperates with law enforcement; boost prevention programs to reduce recidivism; and help released prisoners successfully re-enter society. It also would limit use of solitary confinement for juveniles; and improve criminal records reporting.
Society has a vested interest to help released inmates return to their families, parent their children, join the workforce and pay taxes. Don’t forget, with historic low unemployment, the U.S. economy needs more workers. We have worked in good faith to get this right and balance the scales of justice for all. Those who break the law will still do time for the crime. Make no mistake: our bill would keep violent, career criminals off the streets. It also would give non-violent offenders who will inevitably return to our neighborhoods a fair chance at becoming productive, contributing members of society.
We need to recognize and address what may lead to criminal behavior, such as addiction, mental health issues or lack of job training. Locking people up and throwing away the key is unsustainable. And so is releasing inmates without rehabilitation tools to succeed. Massive incarceration is not good for communities, families or taxpayers. More than two million Americans are behind bars in state and federal prisons. We need to do a better job helping individuals become law-abiding, productive members in their communities. The First Step Act is a big step in the right direction