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Congressman Bobby Scott

Representing the 3rd District of Virginia

Scott Statement on Prison Reform Bill

May 22, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03) submitted the following statement into the Congressional Record regarding his position on H.R. 5682 the FIRST STEP Act:

“Mr. Speaker, first I would like to acknowledge the gentleman from Georgia, Representative Doug Collins, and the gentlemen from New York, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, for their hard work and dedication in improving this bill over the last several weeks.

“Historically, the United States of America has been plagued with serious, fundamental problems within our criminal justice system.  For far too long, policymakers have chosen to play politics and disapprove of common-sense policy that is specifically geared towards reducing crime by instead enacting so-called ‘tough on crime’ slogans and soundbites, such as ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ ‘mandatory minimum sentencing,’ and even rhymes such as, ‘you do the adult crime, you do the adult time.’  These policies may sound appealing, but their impact ranges from a negligible reduction in crime to an actual increase in crime. 

“Turning to the bill we are debating today, I recognize that the FIRST STEP Act includes a fix to the calculation of good time credit, which I have sought for many years.  Calculating good time credit as Congress had originally intended is a serious improvement made by this bill.  This bill also improves the auditing process for enforcing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to protect prisoners from sexual assault.  It places prohibitions on shackling pregnant and post-partum women.  The bill expands the use and transparency of compassionate release for terminally ill prisoners.  It also requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to house prisoners closer to their primary residence, so they can maintain ties to their family and community.  And there is a significant investment in programs designed to reduce recidivism. 

“But process is essential to crafting an effective bill.  There were no hearings on this bill.  Nor has a CBO score been done.  Nor has a prison impact analysis been prepared.  And it is obvious that experts had little to do with drafting the bill.  As a result of this process, there are several problems with the bill.  First, the version of the bill we are voting on today is unnecessarily complicated by the use of a risk assessment tool.  I have reached out to experts in the field of prison reform, and I have not found anyone who will say that risk assessment tools should be used to determine which prisoners can use time credits to gain early release from prison.  Instead, they suggest that simply increasing programming for everyone will reduce recidivism and the complicated risk assessments are unnecessary and will stand in the way of reducing recidivism for many prisoners.  The risk assessment process may also exacerbate existing racial disparities in the federal prison system. 

“Second, experts have raised serious concerns about excluding groups of prisoners from this program who we know will be released from prison and therefore should be involved in the program. 

“Third, there are questions of cost and funding.  The Bureau of Prisons has cut contracts with halfway houses and terminated 6,000 correctional officers.  This bill cannot achieve its goals without an adequately staffed prison system, as well as sufficient space at halfway houses. 

“Even in the absence of hearings and experts, we can see that some of the opposition to this bill is almost comical, because it is lodged by advocates who support other legislation that carries the same provisions that are either similar to or worse than what they complain about in the FIRST STEP Act.  Others oppose the bill because it does not include sentencing reform and therefore does not address mass incarceration.  Unfortunately, the bill those advocates hold up as “sentencing reform” fails to make any meaningful reduction in mass incarceration, and may in fact add to mass incarceration.

“It is in the context of this absurd process that we have to vote on this legislation.  Unfortunately, without the appropriate analysis, we can only guess about its impact.  Based on that guess, it is my determination that no prisoner will be worse off, but many may be significantly better off, under the FIRST STEP Act.  I expect that public safety will be enhanced by this bill, because more people will receive programming to reduce their likelihood to commit future crimes.  Although this is a shameful process, I will therefore support the bill. 

“Mr. Speaker, as the process moves forward, I hope that the sponsors of this legislation will continue to improve it, based on evidence and research.”    

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