Q: What is the First Step Act?
A: The bipartisan First Step Act restructures federal criminal sentencing laws for the first time in decades. After years of listening, negotiating and reviewing reforms enacted at the state level, a broad coalition of lawmakers joined together with the White House to secure passage of the historic First Step Act. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I took the lead with Senator Durbin, of Illinois, to fix flaws in the federal sentencing system and improve rehabilitation programs. Taxpayers spend more than $7 billion a year on the federal prison population. That’s a lot of money for a system with high rates of recidivism, racial disparity in sentencing, and not enough opportunity for rehabilitation and integration into society. The First Step Act will restore fairness and justice to a system overwhelmed by mass incarceration. The First Step Act will help low-risk, nonviolent offenders put a better foot forward when they re-enter society. More than 95 percent of federal inmates will be released at some point from federal prison. Our criminal justice system needs to do more to prevent them from committing another crime. Society benefits when prisoners who have been released from prison become productive contributors to their communities and families. With the president’s strong support, the Senate voted 87-12 for this bill, and the House also passed it by an overwhelming margin of 358-36, reflecting the widespread support and efforts by advocates from across the ideological spectrum. The reforms in the First Step Act will reduce the tax burden, help law enforcement fight crime, stop the revolving prison door, and give nonviolent, low-risk inmates a head start on a fresh start.
Q: How does the First Step Act change sentencing laws?
A: It improves fairness in sentencing and preserves law enforcement tools to protect public safety. It reduces some mandatory minimums and expands the existing federal safety valve, giving federal judges additional discretion to tailor criminal sentences to better fit low-level, non-violent offenders. In addition, the First Step Act retroactively addresses the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and clarifies that a sentencing enhancement for using a firearm during a crime of violence or a drug crime is limited to repeat offenders.
The First Step Act also incentivizes prisoners to participate in evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism. If they successfully participate in these programs, they can earn time credits that will allow them to obtain an early release into prerelease custody. To qualify for these programs, inmates will be filtered through a multi-layer system to weed out violent offenders and identify those likely to commit more crimes. The First Step Act also will invest resources for drug treatment, education and job training programs to help prevent released inmates from committing crimes and returning to prison. To aid in the recidivism reduction effort, the bill makes it easier for prisoners to stay in touch with their families. The law provides that the federal Bureau of Prisons must take into account proximity to family when assigning prison assignments.
Again, the new law rewards only those who take personal responsibility for their transgressions. My record reflects my work as a taxpayer watchdog and law and order Republican. I also believe in the redemptive power of rehabilitation. The First Step Act is a good step in the right direction. Not only will it make our streets safer and help those who have made mistakes to turn their lives around, it also sends a signal to the American people that Congress can work together for the public good. At nearly every one of my county meetings, Iowans tell me how fed up they are with divisive politics. This bill is an example of the good work we can do when we listen to each other and put in the hard work required in seeking out bipartisan solutions to complex problems.