Grassley Statement at the National Press Club Newsmakers News Conference
Prepared Remarks by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
At the National Press Club Newsmakers News Conference
Monday, April 27, 2015
Thank you, Bob, for the kind introduction and the invitation to be here this morning. I appreciate our friendship over the years. And, a very special hello to a fellow Iowan, your wife, Pat.
As most of you know, I became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. Pundits made a big deal out of the fact that I’m the first non-lawyer to chair the committee. I like to think of it as injecting a little Iowa common sense into the chairmanship. What most people don’t realize is that the Judiciary Committee is the one committee I’ve served on continuously since being elected to the Senate.
Many committees dive deep into a narrow set of issues that are important, but not always on the forefront of the minds of all Americans. By contrast, the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over a broad set of issues that are often fundamental to our national identity—issues that are sewn into the great and diverse fabric of American democracy and culture. As a result, many of the topics we debate invoke deeply-held, passionate views.
The committee oversees a judicial system that seeks justice for both the injured and the accused. It upholds America’s reputation as the welcome mat of the world by ensuring our immigration system is inviting to legal immigrants who share our love of freedom and respect for the rule of law. It fosters ingenuity and innovations that grow our economy and improve our quality of life. And the committee holds the keys to the Constitution—the document that is the blueprint for a thriving democracy, and is the guardian of our individual rights and liberties.
The founding charter of freedom helps guide America through our darkest hours and paves the way to our most triumphant achievements. And, arguably, quite like nothing else, the Constitution's promise of justice and equal rights under the law, offers hope to victims of injustice in our society.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I believe our panel bears a unique responsibility to uphold that promise for all Americans. For Americans struggling on the downside of advantage. For troubled youth who wonder if the struggle to climb America's ladder of opportunity and to stay on the right side of the law is even worth it. For the innocent victims of asset forfeiture, who see the government as Goliath. For the poor defendants wondering if they truly have a chance in their day in court.
I see my chairmanship as an opportunity to help secure America's blessings of freedom and liberty. Because, "We the people" applies to all Americans. I can't think of a better platform to embrace and expand opportunities for victims of injustice than from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. I plan to make the most use of the next two years of the 114th Congress to make a difference in the lives of all Americans.
Let’s start with the youngest of those facing the criminal justice system. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was originally enacted in 1974. And, while it’s been reauthorized several times since then, and has received funding through the appropriations process, it’s not really been revisited and updated since 2002. This is a program that not only helps prevent at-risk youth from entering the criminal justice system, but also one that helps rehabilitate minors already in the system.
I’m leading a reauthorization effort with Senator Whitehouse. We introduced a bill last Congress to establish a starting point for negotiations in the 114th Congress. Just last week we held a hearing in the Judiciary Committee to focus on fixing issues within the Juvenile Justice Grant program that whistleblowers had brought to my attention. The whistleblowers testified to widespread mismanagement and failures in the grant program. They cited instances of fraud and neglect of core grant requirements for these taxpayer-funded grants. The Justice Department’s negligence relates to implementation of the four criteria states must meet to receive funds.
According to the whistleblowers, there are a few states that meet all of the grant eligibility criteria. But, the Office of Justice Programs, which administers the program, turns its head the other way when states aren’t in compliance. Worse yet, states know about this blanket amnesty, so apparently they don’t even try to follow the law.
After I wrote four letters on this issue, the Justice Department finally owned up to some of these problems. They admitted to having a policy in place since 1997 that allowed states to obtain federal funds in violation of the law, and they have assured me that they will end this practice. However, other issues remain.
So, we’re going to start righting those wrongs this week. I, along with Senator Whitehouse, plan to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization bill this week. Our bill will respond to issues highlighted by whistleblowers at last week’s hearing by increasing accountability and oversight in the office’s administration of the law. The bill also seeks to improve the treatment of youth under the Act by bolstering its core protections, improving conditions for detained juveniles, and incorporating new science on adolescent development. We’re also looking to update the protections and programs already established in the law, and authorize funding for five years.
Another reform area that’s been in the press both nationally and in my home state of Iowa is asset forfeiture. Investigations by journalists and civil liberties advocates have exposed perverse incentives that have nudged enforcement of these laws off kilter with basic fairness. These laws are important crime-fighting tools that enable law enforcement to seize cash or property that’s considered linked to illicit activity. The theory behind the system is to choke off the funding stream used to bankroll criminal ventures, such as drugs and human trafficking or money laundering. I agree that it’s a worthy and important public policy to help thwart crime. However, it seems that sometimes this tool is increasingly being used as a funding source for the government with thin regard for civil rights.
I’m working to draft bipartisan reforms to fix these flaws. For starters, the direct quid pro quo between asset forfeiture and funding should be eliminated. A law enforcement agency's operations shouldn't be funded based on the assets they seize. In addition, real procedural reforms must be enacted for people whose assets are seized, including prompt timelines for government action and the ability to challenge the seizure promptly before a judge.
And, individuals who cannot afford a lawyer to guide them through the system should be provided one. Part of addressing this problem lies in reversing the Supreme Court’s recent decision that allows the government to prevent people from showing that they need access to their seized funds to hire a lawyer. We also need to codify changes in the use of the program in structuring cases, where small business owners like Iowa’s Carole Hinders get unfairly caught up in forfeiture for depositing money in a bank without any indication of any underlying crime.
I’m also looking at an area of law to help indigent defendants who are not being provided with counsel as the Constitution requires. The Sixth Amendment calls for any indigent defendant who is charged with misdemeanors and faces a possible jail sentence to have a lawyer appointed to represent them. The Supreme Court has established this rule for more than 40 years. We’re learning that states and localities regularly fail to comply with this requirement. As a result, potentially innocent individuals plead guilty to crimes. They also then accrue a criminal record which causes them adverse consequences including difficulty finding a job and a greater criminal history that would be considered in any future sentencing determination.
Some misdemeanors are treated as felonies in the legal system if a person becomes a repeat misdemeanor offender. If some of those earlier misdemeanor convictions were uncounseled, then someone might be convicted of a felony who did not commit one. The committee will convene a hearing in the upcoming weeks to explore this problem and look at potential solutions.
Along those same lines, let me explain another issue we’re working to address. We’re seeing studies that show 32 percent of American adults have criminal records if arrest records are included. That means a lot of innocent people are often put in unfair situations. That’s because those records are sent to the federal government for inclusion in a database and searched during background checks.
For instance, if an employer uses the database for hiring purposes, the records can be inaccurate and old. And, just as bad, the database includes arrest records that never resulted in a conviction. It’s unfair that an arrest – not resulting in a conviction – is included in a criminal background check. And, while there is a process by which people can contest their records being in the database, there are flaws in that process that need to be looked and changed.
Over the last several months I’ve been accused of being a road block to sentencing reform. Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward. I’m ready to address some of these issues. What I’m not willing to do is an across the board cut in mandatory minimums. I agree that some should be cut. But, I also think that some should be raised.
With a heroin epidemic strangling some of our communities, and white collar criminals getting paltry sentences, the last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys.
Let me end with this. When I first became chairman I talked a lot about the dual roles of the legislative branch. Our constitutional responsibilities don’t just include writing laws. We’re also responsible for ensuring those laws are faithfully implemented and carried out by the executive branch. It’s something that I don’t think Congress does enough of.
Anybody who knows my oversight efforts understands why the Judiciary Committee has such a heavy focus on this vital function of the legislative branch. I think I have a reputation as someone who does equal oversight of both Republicans and Democrats. So, I want to make clear this isn’t about the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania. Believe me, the previous administration wasn’t fond of my letters and oversight, either.
We need to keep the federal government working for the American people, not the other way around. After immersing myself in the legislative and oversight jurisdiction of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the last 34 years, I look forward to championing these ideas and making a lasting difference in the daily lives of all Americans.