December 18, 2018

Van Hollen Statement on Passage of First Step Act

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen released the following statement regarding the passage of the First Step Act:

Mr. President, I am proud that the Senate has passed the First Step Act. As a cosponsor of this bill, I am heartened that Republicans and Democrats came together to address an issue that affects millions of Americans and their families.

Although one of my colleagues across the aisle has said that we have an “under-incarceration” problem, that is simply not the case. The United States represents only 4.4% of the world’s population but we hold approximately 22% of the world’s prisoners.  Over the past decade, Americans and Congress have taken a long hard look at who we incarcerate and why. This review has made us realize that too many elements of our criminal justice system are based on prejudice and have inflicted unnecessary harm in communities across the country.  We should strive to ensure that “liberty and justice for all” is not just a phrase we say, but a promise we keep to all Americans.

The First Step Act allows prisoner rehabilitation so that they can return home ready to contribute to their communities. Education and job training opportunities provide individuals with a real second chance.

The bill incorporates important provisions that allows for the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which removed the sentencing disparity between the crack-power and cocaine. We were able to include provisions that prohibit the use of solitary confinement of juvenile offenders, prohibit the shackling of pregnant and postpartum women, and ensure that prisoners are placed in prisons closer to home. The bill also offers low and minimal risk offenders the possibility of supervised release, home confinement or release to halfway homes.

The three amendments offered to the bill by Senators Cotton and Kennedy do not protect victims, are redundant, and are so broad as to subvert the bill’s purpose. The first amendment requires mandatory notification to crime victims of an offender’s impending release. However, current law and agency policies already allows victims to choose if they want to receive these updates. Mandated reporting harms victims who do not want to receive this information. That is why this amendment is opposed by organizations such as the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice and the Fairness, Dignity & Respect for Crime Victims & Survivors Project.

The second amendment will require wardens to notify victims of early release and review victim statements prior to determining if an offender is eligible for pre-release custody or supervised release. Again, this amendment diminishes the rights our current laws give victims by allowing them determine if they want to receive this information. Victims already have the right to submit statements of opposition or support prior to parole or early release. Additionally, prison wardens should not be burdened with calculating risk assessment. The bill establishes an Independent Review Committee that will recommend and assess the best evidence-based tools to ensure that risk assessments are bias-free and objective.

Lastly, the expanded “crime of violence” definitions offered are vague, redundant and would exclude the very population the bill is designed to help. On its face, the final amendment seems to be common sense but the language is so vague that one analysis claims that only low-level drug offenders and white-collar criminals would be eligible for earned credit. The amendment has a catchall to prevent anyone who has been convicted of any offense that involved substantial risk of physical force against a person or their property from receiving pre-release.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that this amendment would exclude 30,000 prisoners from participating in the program. I believe that the goal of criminal justice reform is rehabilitation & reducing recidivism and restricting incentives would defeat that purpose. The bill has been carefully crafted to only include low risk offenders.

The First Step Act is by no means perfect. For example, the bill does not include provisions to address the flaws in the money bail system, or the discrimination in housing or employment that many offenders face upon release. Nor does it prohibit the use of private prisons, or address discriminatory loopholes in our tax code that make it harder for released offenders to finance their education.

But the bill’s name is clear—this is the first step and not the last, in our commitment to reform our criminal justice system.