Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Sportsmen's Amendments

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BOOKER. Mr. President, I rise to speak about our Nation's broken criminal justice system, a system that has taken an unimaginable and I believe unsustainable toll on our Nation.

The United States remarkably is home to between 4 and 5 percent of the entire globe's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prison population. This phenomenon is unacceptable, that the land of the free would have 25 percent of the globe's imprisoned people. What is startling about that is the majority of those people are nonviolent offenders. In fact, the majority are nonviolent drug offenders.

This phenomenon has largely emerged since around 1980, a period during which the Federal prison population has grown nearly tenfold. Since 1980 we have seen a 10-time increase in our prison population. Again, if we were locking up violent offenders, people who are terrorizing our streets or inflicting vicious and violent harm on our communities, then ridding our streets of such dangerous criminals would be understandable and it would be a price worth paying. But that is not the story of this unbelievable explosion of our Federal prisons and our Nation's incarcerated people. The reality is that nearly three-quarters of Federal prisoners are nonviolent and have no history of violence whatsoever.

What is worse and what is anguishing is that once they are convicted of a crime, American citizens then face daunting obstacles to successfully rejoin society, to being able to raise their family, put food on the table, provide for themselves. As a result of that, our State and Federal prison exits have now become revolving doors, with two of every three ex-offenders getting rearrested within 5 years. Two-thirds of those nonviolent folks leaving our prisons come back within 5 years.

When ex-offenders return to prison again and again, they are not just paying a price; we all are paying the price. We are contributing so much of our national treasure to rearresting the same people over and over, to reincarcerating the same people over and over. A recent Pew report concluded that if just 10 States cut their recidivism just 10 percent, it would save taxpayers $470 million--money this Nation urgently could use either to keep in the pockets of taxpayers or invest in things such as lowering the cost of college or in our roads and bridges or our crumbling infrastructure.

As hard-working, taxpaying Americans have increased the fund for our prisons, funding more and more, there have been fewer and fewer resources left for these other crucial parts of our society--fewer resources for law enforcement, fewer resources for rehabilitative programs, fewer resources for proven investments in children that help prevent crime in the first place. The result has been a cycle of spending and incarceration that has led to the ballooning of this Federal prison bureaucracy, more than one-quarter of a trillion dollars a year from our economy going to unproductive and even counterproductive uses.

Our country's misguided criminal justice policies place an economic drag on local communities and on our Nation's global competitiveness. Remember, if we are putting 25 percent of the globe's prison population in our American prisons, paying the price for that, our competitive democracies, our competitive economies aren't paying that price, we are paying this egregious price, and it is not making us any more safe. In fact, I would say it is making us less safe as a community.

Many of my colleagues in this body, I am proud to say, recognize the urgent need for reform and have already put forth pieces of legislation that seek to improve various parts of this broken system. I am grateful and I applaud the bipartisan efforts that exist in this body amongst my colleagues--Senators Leahy, Flake, Durbin, Lee, Whitehouse, Landrieu, Franken, and others--who stand up to say: We have to save taxpayer dollars, we have to elevate human potential, and we have to make our streets safer.

So to build off the momentum of these leaders in the Senate, I join with Senator Rand Paul to introduce today the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment--or REDEEM--Act. This bipartisan legislation will establish much needed, sensible, pragmatic reforms that keep kids out of an adult system in the first place, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake and not haunt young people throughout their lives, and help make it actually less likely that low-level nonviolent offenders reoffend.

Among other measures, our bill incentivizes States to raise the age of original jurisdiction for criminal courts to 18 years old. Trying juveniles who have committed low-level, nonviolent crimes as adults is counterproductive. They don't emerge from prison reformed and ready to reintegrate into a high school. The criminal record they have won't help them as they try to get a job. We need a system that treats juveniles toughly but fairly and with an eye toward a productive adulthood, with an eye toward restorative justice.

For kids in the dozen States that treat 17- and even 16-year-olds as adults, no longer would it be likely that getting into a scuffle at school would result in an adult record that could follow an individual for the rest of their life, restricting access to a college degree, limiting employment prospects, and increasing the likelihood of engaging in further criminal activity. It is time that we empower our children to succeed, not undermine their long-term prospects for life's success.

The REDEEM Act also enhances Federal juvenile record confidentiality provisions and provides for automatic expungement of records for kids who commit nonviolent crimes before they turn 15 and automatic sealing of records for those who commit nonviolent crimes after they turn 15.

It will also ban the very cruel and counterproductive practice of juvenile solitary confinement that can have immediate and long-term detrimental effects on youth detainee mental and physical health. In fact, the majority of suicides by juveniles in prisons happens by young people who are in solitary confinement. Other nations even consider it torture.

For adults, this legislation offers the first broad-based Federal path to the sealing of criminal records. A person who commits a nonviolent crime will be able to petition a court and make his or her case.

Furthermore, employers requesting a background check from the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be provided with only relevant and accurate information thanks to a provision that will protect job applicants by improving the quality of the Bureau's background check.

Think about this: 17 million background checks were done by the FBI last year, many of them for private providers, and upward of half of them were inaccurate or incomplete, often causing people to lose a job, miss an economic opportunity, and be trapped with few options

to address the basic economic security that could lead someone to reoffend in order to feed a child. The REDEEM Act lifts a ban on receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. These benefits were conceived in a way that should empower people when they have to leave, and those convicted of drug use or possession having paid their dues now have a path to the reinstatement of those benefits so that they can get their lives together so they can be empowered and successful.

Taken together, these measures will help keep kids who get in trouble out of a lifetime of crime and help adults who commit nonviolent crimes become more self-reliant and less likely to reoffend.

The time to act is now. We cannot afford to let our criminal justice system continue to grow at the rate that it is. We cannot afford to sap billions of taxpayer dollars from a broken system that is locking people up and then doing nothing to empower them to succeed. We are wasting human potential and human productivity. We are hurting our economy, and by trapping people without options, we often end up making our communities less safe.

We have seen how other individual States are doing things to address this issue and are actually lowering recidivism and lowering their prison population and on top of it lowering actual crime in their States. It is time that the Federal Government act to do the same.

I urge my colleagues to support the REDEEM Act so we can make our communities safer and stronger and truly be a nation that savors and values freedom and empowers its citizens to live productive, strong lives of contribution.

Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I note the absence of a quorum.


Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top