First Step Act

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 18, 2018
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I rise on behalf of S. 756, the FIRST STEP Act. It is a first step, and it is a mighty important first step. Hopefully, this bill is going to pass later today.

This revised FIRST STEP Act is long overdue. I am proud to see that the House, the Senate, and the President are all working together, as they should, to pass this important bill. This country of ours incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The Federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent since 1980, and it consumes one quarter of the Department of Justice's budget. No one questions that some people deserve to go to prison for the crimes they commit--sometimes for a long time. Yet it is time to bring some common sense back into our criminal justice system.

This legislation will allow judges to do the job that they were appointed to do--to use their discretion to craft an appropriate sentence to fit the crime. There are numerous stories of judges who are forced, by strict mandatory minimums, to sentence people to decades in prison for low-level drug offenses. How many times have we heard of a judge who says, ``I don't think that this sentence ought to be imposed, but I have no other choice for this is what the sentencing guidelines say''?

We have seen examples of people who have been sent to prison for more than 50 years for selling $350 worth of marijuana--a drug that is now legal in some States. In my State of Florida, the use of marijuana for medical purposes is legal. It was passed by three-quarters of the people in a constitutional amendment. These rigid sentences that do not fit the crimes ought to be turned around, and that is exactly what this legislation does. If we don't start this first step of turning it around, it will be so wasteful, so unfair, so costly. It is not how our criminal justice system was intended to work. I am sure the senior Senator from Illinois has already told you about the wide swath of groups, people, and organizations from across the political spectrum who understand that the system is broken and want it to be repaired.

In addition to the much needed sentencing reform, this legislation includes prison reform ending cruel and inhuman practices in our Federal prison system. It is Federal juvenile solitary confinement, a practice that now the psychiatrists tell us gives long psychological damage. It also prohibits the shackling of pregnant prisoners. Doctors have told us about the harm that can come to a pregnant female and serious harm to the fetus if she is not appropriately looked after, and shackling can interfere with that appropriate medical care. The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly oppose the shackling of women who are pregnant.

This FIRST STEP Act also requires prisoners to be incarcerated closer to their home so family members can visit them. After all, don't we want to rehabilitate prisoners?

It provides opioid treatment to inmates that suffer from addiction-- something that probably led to their incarceration in the first place.

There is more to do certainly. That is why this is just a first step. It is a bipartisan first step. It is a concrete improvement of our current system.

I am proud to support this legislation. This Senator gave his farewell address last week, but because of this very important legislation, which this Senator has wanted to see come to life and be enacted into law for such a long time, it was important for me to come to this floor and to speak on its behalf, as well as to thank the managers of the bill who have brought it through this long and torturous path.

It is finally going to become a reality. This, indeed, is an example that when people of goodwill put their minds to it and come together in a bipartisan fashion, in fact, you can get something done.