WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a cosponsor of the First Step Act, offered the following remarks during Senate floor debate and passage of the criminal justice reform legislation on Tuesday night:
“I’m very pleased that the Senate passed the First Step Act tonight, with strong support from both parties. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle understand that our criminal justice system is badly broken and in need of repair, and just as the name suggests, passage of tonight’s bill is a critical first step toward making those fixes. This legislation makes key sentencing and prison reform improvements – necessary changes for a more reasonable, equitable justice system. I thank Senators Grassley and Durbin for their leadership on getting this done, and I urge my colleagues in the House to pass this bill and President Trump to sign it into law without delay.
“I am especially pleased that the revised First Step Act passed tonight reauthorizes the Second Chance Act. This critical federal program helps individuals returning to the community from prison or jail and has a proven track record of reducing recidivism and saving money for the taxpayers.
“In my own state of Maryland, we know the importance of criminal justice reform after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police Department custody in 2015. Baltimore is a good example of the necessary federal and state partnership we need in order to reform the criminal justice system.
“In 2016, Maryland also passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which seeks to reduce Maryland’s prison population and use the savings to provide for more effective treatment to offenders – before, during, and after incarceration. This is intended to reduce the likelihood of reoffending, as well as to benefit victims and families and reduce costs to taxpayers.
“As a next step, in the new Congress, I look forward to consideration of my End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, S. 411. Racial and discriminatory profiling is wrong, counterproductive, and a wasteful use of resources. This amendment would prohibit racial, religious, and other discriminatory profiling by any federal, state, or local law enforcement, setting a national standard. It would create a cause of action for such profiling, condition the receipt of federal law enforcement grants on the elimination of profiling, and create grants for best practices and training of law enforcement officers.
“Congress should also take up and pass my Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, S. 3195, to address the issue of police accountability and build trust between police departments and the communities they serve. This legislation provides incentives for local police organizations to voluntarily adopt performance-based standards to ensure that incidents of misconduct will be reduced through appropriate management, training and oversight protocols. Finally, this legislation authorizes funds for the implementation of consent decrees and judgements entered into between the Department of Justice and local police departments, such as the Baltimore Police Department.
“I had filed two amendments to this legislation that I will work with my colleagues to be considered in the new Congress. The first is the text of S. 1588, the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA). This legislation would strengthen American communities by restoring voting rights to individuals after they have returned to their communities after being released from incarceration. Studies indicate that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, and that disenfranchisement hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into their community.
“I was pleased that last month the citizens of Florida, by a nearly two-thirds margin of 65 to 35 percent, voted to amend their state constitution to automatically restore the right to vote for most individuals with prior felony convictions. Under the previous law, people with prior felonies never regained their right to vote in Florida unless a state board used its discretion to individually restore your voting rights.
“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. It’s simply wrong that state disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy. Casting a vote is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy and gives you a say in the future of your community. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that right is protected and should be leading an effort to remove barriers and make it easier for more people to register to vote, cast their vote, and make sure their votes are counted.
“In the United States, an estimated 6.1 million adult citizens are currently disenfranchised as a result of a criminal conviction. While 16 states and the District of Columbia already restore voting rights upon release from prison, 34 states continue to restrict the voting rights of people who are no longer incarcerated. In 10 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. Since March 2016, Maryland automatically restores voting rights after individuals are released from prison. The law went into effect after the legislature successfully overrode a veto from Governor Larry Hogan (R-Md.). The new law immediately restored voting rights to approximately 40,000 Marylanders.
“Second is the Private Prison Information Act, or PPIA. This amendment would apply the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to private prison. This would ensure that non-federal prisons are held to the same standard of information sharing and record keeping as federal detention facilities, and would increase transparency and accountability. Private prisons account for 20 percent of our federal prison and detention population but hide behind loopholes in the law when it comes to how they perform their job on behalf of the American people. Security breaches, overcrowding and misuse of funds were among the many reasons the Justice Department under President Obama and Attorney General Lynch rightly began to phase out the use of private prison contracts. These companies receive federal funds and provide the same service as governmental agencies. They perform the ‘inherently governmental function’ of incarcerating individuals convicted of a crime by the federal government. They must be held accountable to the same standards.
“I would note that the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a joint letter of support for the First Step Act. These groups also said: ‘The First Step Act is not the end. We must address these concerns and create a system that is just and equitable, significantly reduces the number of people unnecessarily entering the system, eliminates racial disparities, and creates opportunities for second chances.
“With this first step toward repairing our broken criminal justice system, let us pledge to work together to make further improvements in the new Congress.”