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Ranking Member Nadler Floor Statement in Support of S. 756, the “First Step Act”

Washington, DC, December 20, 2018

Today, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, delivered the following remarks on the House floor in support of S. 756, the FIRST STEP Act:

“I rise today in support of S. 756, the ‘FIRST STEP Act,’ as passed by the Senate.  

“This legislation has traveled a long journey to get to this point.  Along the way, various aspects of the bill changed.  Although I do not agree with all of the changes, on balance the measure has improved, thanks to the hard work of many Members on both sides of the aisle, from the House and Senate.

“Before I get to the substance of the bill, I want to recognize some of the people most responsible for getting us here today.  There are a number of champions of criminal justice reform in the Senate, but I particularly want to recognize and thank Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley for their commitment to getting a bill that includes important sentencing reforms to the President’s desk. 

“In the House, I thank my Judiciary Committee colleagues, Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Doug Collins, who worked together, and with us, to achieve a bipartisan compromise that is the foundation of this bill.  I also thank the Ranking Member of the Crime Subcommittee, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who has helped hold this legislation to a high standard, knowing that so many are counting on us to address longstanding injustices.  And there are many others in the House who have fought for substantial reform for years, upon whose labors this bill was built, who deserve our praise and our thanks.

“Finally, let me recognize Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who is retiring at the end of this term.  He and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on a range of issues, including some aspects of this bill, but I appreciate his efforts as Chairman over the past six years to work with my Democratic colleagues on the Committee.  Today, we join together in supporting an important, bipartisan bill.  I thank him for his leadership in bringing us to the final stage of its consideration, and for his service to Congress, and to the country.

“As for the bill itself, S. 756 makes a number of reforms to our federal sentencing laws.  It also establishes a new system to provide incentives to some federal prisoners to participate in programs that will reduce the risk that they will commit crimes once they are released. 

“The prison reform provisions in this bill are similar to those in H.R. 5682, the House-passed measure with the same name as this new bill.  The bill before us today includes provisions intended to address concerns that I, and many others, raised about the fairness of the new recidivism reduction system for federal prisons. 

“For instance, this revised bill establishes an Independent Review Committee of outside experts to assist the Justice Department in the development of the risk and needs assessment system that would determine the programming for inmates, their risk categories, and their eligibility for early entry into pre-release custody.  Also, the bill expands the options for early pre-release custody to include supervised release. 

“Changes such as these, in addition to authorizing more funding for the expansion of programming to reduce the risk of recidivism by inmates, help make this new system fairer.  In the other direction, however, I am disappointed that the bill excludes additional categories of offenders from being able to earn early entry into pre-release custody, reducing the risk reduction incentives for those who need it the most. 

“The prison reform provisions of this bill also include a number of very positive changes, such as banning shackling of pregnant and postpartum inmates, fixing the calculation of time-off earned for good behavior, improving application of compassionate release, and providing other measures to improve the welfare of federal inmates. 

“In addition, the bill reauthorizes the Second Chance Act, a historically bipartisan effort to help ex-offenders successfully re-enter their communities after having served their time. 

“Critically, S. 756 would not only implement these reforms to our prison system, but it also takes a crucial first step toward addressing grave concerns about our sentencing laws, which have for years fed a national crisis of mass incarceration.

“Among the sentencing reforms contained in this bill are:

  • Expanding the existing safety valve to allow judges greater authority to sentence low-level, non-violent offenders below the mandatory minimum;
  • Applying the crack cocaine sentence reductions from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively; 
  • Reducing certain mandatory minimum sentences for recidivist drug offenders; and
  • Stopping the unfair “stacking” of mandatory sentencing enhancements for certain repeat firearms offenders. 

“Although we must do far more to address the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences, and other policies that lead to mass incarceration, these changes recognize the fundamental unfairness of a system that imposes lengthy imprisonment that is not based on the facts and circumstances of each offender and each case. 

“This legislation is not the end of the discussion. 

“As the bill’s title suggests, it is a ‘first step.’  It will not solve longstanding problems with our criminal justice system—issues and injustices that will require more aggressive and comprehensive reforms—but it does demonstrate that we can work together to make the system fairer in ways that will also reduce crime and victimization. 

“Therefore I support this bill and I ask my colleagues to do the same.   I reserve the balance of my time.”

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