As we approach the holiday season, many of us will be celebrating differently. COVID-19 may be limiting travel, the family members we see in person, or other holiday traditions. Yet, there’s much to be grateful for.
For me, I’m thankful for my health, my family, my country and my staff. I’m also grateful to serve Iowans and work in the Senate to tackle legislation, conduct oversight and work to best serve the people of Iowa.
I’m also thankful to reflect upon previous accomplishments.
This time of year coincides with a milestone achievement: the anniversary of the passage of the First Step Act.
On December 18, 2018, the Senate passed the most significant criminal justice reform legislation in a generation. Three days later, President Trump signed the bill into law.
The First Step Act is an example of what the Senate can accomplish when we reach across the aisle to address our nation’s most pressing problems. I’m proud that the First Step Act has been the law of the land for two years.
The past two years have been uniquely challenging. In the first year of the law’s tenure, I worked with Senate partners to oversee implementation efforts. This included meeting with critical stakeholders in the Justice Department, reviewing the status of the law’s implementation and ensuring that the law’s application reflects Congressional intent.
In that first year, we accomplished a lot together.
Because of the First Step Act, thousands of inmates received the benefit of the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to resolve sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.
The Justice Department released its Risk and Needs Assessment System, a tool used to individually review the recidivism risks of each federal inmate and place them in programming to prevent future criminal acts. The Bureau of Prisons also issued procedures for more efficient access and use of the home confinement program.
Implementation efforts have faced significant challenges, however, namely the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the First Step Act provided tools that the Administration has been able to use to help vulnerable inmates.
It’s become apparent during the pandemic that inmates confined in federal prisons are among the most vulnerable populations in the United States. As they’re in federal custody, the government has a duty to ensure that they’re treated humanely.
To that end, Senator Durbin and I urged increased review of compassionate release and elderly home detention cases in light of COVID-19 cases in federal prisons. We also asked the Justice Department Inspector General to review the use of the home confinement authority, preventative safety measures, COVID-19 testing, screening and isolation measures and availability of access by inmates to electronic communication.
I’m pleased to say that the Administration responded to many of our requests, though more work needs to be done as we continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19 in our prisons.
One of the most important issues we must address is a key provision of the First Step Act: the requirement for the Bureau of Prisons to make programming available to prisoners to help them to live productive lives once they leave prison, and that makes it less likely they will return to a life of crime.
The coronavirus has made it impossible for the Bureau of Prisons to provide this programming as the law intended and requires. Inmates must socially distance from each other to prevent the virus’ spread, which flies in the face of meeting in person to participate in recidivism reduction programming. Therefore, as we move forward, balancing effective programming access with CDC-approved safety measures is critical.
As I return to leadership in the Judiciary Committee, I’ll continue to make implementation of the First Step Act a priority, and will ensure the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons faithfully execute the law.
Lastly, as we embark on a new Congress and a new year, I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to seek the middle ground on criminal justice issues. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.
The First Step Act has made a difference in the lives of thousands of prisoners, and will continue to impact many in the federal criminal justice system. It gives prisoners a better opportunity to leave their criminal past behind and become productive members of society.
It’s remarkable what we were able to achieve two short years ago. I’m hopeful to carry that spirit into 2021 and beyond.