WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) today spoke on the Senate Floor expressing his support for the bipartisan First Step Act. This important legislation incentivizes anti-recidivism programs and eases certain draconian mandatory minimum sentences. While Sen. Menendez praised the bill, he also noted that the legislation does not address the structural racism or racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.
Sen. Menendez’s full remarks, as delivered, are below.
“M. President, I rise today in support of the First Step Act. This legislation is, as the title says, an important first step toward desperately needed criminal justice reform.
“I want to thank Senators Durbin, Grassley and Lee, as well as my good friend Senator Cory Booker, for advancing this bipartisan compromise. The Junior Senator from New Jersey has been relentless in his efforts to bring moral urgency to this issue. Thank you, Senator Booker, for your passion and devotion.
“The need for criminal justice reform was an issue constituents frequently raised with me as I crisscrossed New Jersey over the past year. From Woodbury to Paterson to Newark and everywhere in between, I heard from faith leaders calling for solutions to a mass incarceration crisis that has disproportionately torn apart communities of color. Indeed, the NAACP found that nationally, African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, but represented 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.
“I also heard from young people pushing for drug policy reforms so that fewer students charged with marijuana offenses lose access to federal financial aid. I met with leaders like former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, whose work with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation helps formerly incarcerated individuals – especially those struggling with addiction – find jobs and avoid ending up back in prison. I met with African American law enforcement organizations – like the Bronze Shields of Passaic County – about their efforts to build positive relationships in their communities and address challenges like racial profiling and uneven enforcement.
“The First Step Act won’t solve all of these problems – far from it. I certainly would have liked to see more concrete reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentences. However, I’m pleased to support a bill that reverses some of the most detrimental effects of federal mandatory minimum sentences.
“As a longtime proponent of the Second Chance Act, I’m also glad to see provisions reauthorized under this bill that will give nonviolent, low-risk offenders – and their families – greater hope for a brighter future. Under the First Step Act, more Americans in the federal prison system will finally get their second chance.
“While most offenders are incarcerated at the state level, we know that federal mandatory minimums for drug offenses are among the harshest in the nation. According to the Sentencing Project, half of the U.S. federal prison population is serving time for a drug offense – that vast majority of them nonviolent. Under this legislation, low-risk offenders will be able to earn credits by completing anti-recidivism programs that help better prepare them for life after prison. Inmates can then apply these credits toward early placement in a halfway house, home confinement, or other types of early release. We know that when prisoners are equipped with the right tools and resources, they are better able to reintegrate into society and avoid old behaviors that could result in them winding up back behind bars. That’s not only good for them – it’s good for their families and good for their communities.
“These provisions are important back-end reforms, but I will not stop calling for greater reforms to the front-end, enforcement side of the equation.
“This is a serious problem in New Jersey. In July 2017, the Sentencing Project reported that racial disparities in New Jersey’s marijuana arrests are at an all-time high. In 2013, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession three times as often as their white counterparts, despite marijuana use being similar amongst racial groups. And the disparities extend far beyond arrest rates.
“Recently, a 16-month investigation by New Jersey Advance Media found “hard evidence of racial disparities in police use of force across New Jersey.” The data revealed African-Americans are three times likelier to face some type of police force compared to whites. Even more troubling, African-American children faced a disproportionate amount of force. From 2012 through 2016, of the more than 4,600 uses of force against people under 18, slightly more than half were African-American. Yet, African-American children account for only 14.5 percent of New Jersey’s child population.
“I do not highlight these statistics to denigrate our police force, because the men and women who serve in law enforcement put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities, and their bravery will always have my respect, support, and admiration. I highlight these statistics because they reveal a larger need for greater front-end criminal justice, sentencing, and policing reforms that ultimately serve our shared goal of building safe and thriving communities.
“Passing the First Step Act is just that – a first step. It cannot be the only step. We have so much more work to do to fix a broken criminal justice system that leaves too many Americans behind. The First Step Act does not address structural racism and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, nor does it completely alleviate some of the draconian sentences still in place for drug offenses.
“What this legislation will do is make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of federal inmates working to turn their lives around and earn a second chance. I urge my colleagues to support this bill.
“I’ve always believed that the federal policies we set can have a ripple effect across the nation. May the passage of the First Step Act by Congress spur states across America to take additional steps forward -- steps that, together, may advance our nation’s long march for equality and justice under the law.
“Thank you and I yield my time.”
April 22, 2021