United States Senator Charles Grassley held a press conference Wednesday morning to discuss the passage of the First Step Act. The bill made it through the Senate on Tuesday night, 87-12.
“I hope that 87-12 will cause journalists like you to raise questions with people who didn’t bring the bill up as early as they should have,” Grassley said. “What was holding it back?”
Grassley said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked about six weeks ago to be shown more than 60 votes. A month ago Grassley said McConnell was shown about 65-70 votes.
“I think he was getting a lot of pressure from some very vocal, but quite a minority of the Senate, as those 12 votes would tell you, to not bring it up,” Grassley said. “Maybe he himself didn’t know enough about the bill because I never thought he’d vote for it even if we got it up and he did vote for it in the end.”
Once the votes were there and McConnell learned more about the bill, Grassley speculated he realized it was a good idea.
“I have to assume that or he wouldn’t vote for it,” Grassley said.
It’s expected that President Donald Trump’s support for the bill helped as well.
“President Trump wanted this real bad,” Grassley said. “President Trump tweeted at least twice on this subject. The last one a very firm message to McConnell.”
Grassley said the Senate Republican majority has been highly supportive of the President’s agenda.
“We have a Republican President, a Republican majority and a Republican majority leader,” he said. “They ought to help a President get something done.”
This bill is also an answer to many pleas for bi-partisanship, according to Grassley, who said he hears at town hall meetings all the time people asking for more collaboration between the two parties.
“Just think, how much more bi-partisanship can you get than on this bill,” Grassley said. “Particularly as we kind of worked quietly at it behind the scenes. It wouldn’t have ever happened if it hadn’t been bi-partisan. I’ve been working for years with Sen. (Dick) Durbin to draw up a compromise. On the Republican side we benefited from strong allies like Senators (Mike) Lee, (Lindsey) Graham and (Tim) Scott.”
Grassley also credited President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with getting this bill put together.
Timing was another key factor in getting the bill through. Had it not gotten done until the new Congress was put in place, all bets would’ve been off.
“Sen. Durbin obviously feels good about having a Democratic House of Representatives, but here’s what would’ve happened,” Grassley said. “We would’ve had the House Judiciary Committee be much more lenient than Republicans could ever accept… a much more liberal bill, maybe even doing away with mandatory sentences entirely would’ve passed the House of Representatives and we never would’ve gotten it up in the Republican Senate. That’s why it was necessary to get it done now.”
Grassley and Durbin worked on the bill in 2015 and 2016. Once President Trump was elected, Grassley went back to Durbin in early 2017 and told him he was still willing to pick up where the two left off on prison and sentencing reform.
“He obviously said yes, but I think that as I recall it was with a great deal of cynicism about whether or not there was any chance (with) Trump as President, who was always talking tough on crime. (Durbin) got pressure to move left, I got pressure to move right, but we stuck together.”
According to the summary of the revised First Step ACT released by the Committee on the Judiciary, the First Step Act incentivizes prisoners to participate in evidence-based programming designed to reduce recidivism. It sets up a risk and needs assessment programs that classifies prisoners according to risk. Low and minimum risk prisoners have an opportunity to earn time credits to allow them to serve a limited part of their sentence in pre-release custody.
Grassley said the bill only affects 10 percent of prisoners in federal prison. He pointed to states like Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, North Dakota and South Dakota as places with similar reforms that have seen positive results.
“States are laboratories for the political system,” Grassley said. “It happens in this case of prison reform that the federal government is way behind the states. This bill is only targeted to those who are the least violent.”
More information on the legislation can be found here.
“Our goal is to bring some fairness and common sense to a system that needs to work better for the American people, reduce recidivism and taxpayers’ burden,” Grassley said. “While it may sound like common-sense changes, the criminal justice laws haven’t been updated significantly in decades.”
Iowa’s other U.S. Senator, Joni Ernst, voted in support of the bill as well. The First Step Act will now move to the House of Representatives where Grassley said it is expected to pass.
“In the Christmas season now, an untold number of American families will have renewed hope their father, son, mother or daughter will soon have a chance to redeem themselves,” Grassley said.