Press Release

Welch Advocates for Expanding Mental Health Services and Urges Reform in the Criminal Justice System During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing

Jan 17, 2024

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Senator Peter Welch (D-Vt.) advocated for additional measures to further reform the criminal justice system and highlighted the importance of expanding funding for mental health services. Today’s hearing focused on the bipartisan First Step Act, a bill Sen. Welch helped pass as a member of the House of Representatives in 2018.  

“I was a public defender in Vermont and so many of my clients had mental health issues, some were homeless. And…in frustration in our inability to address issues of mental health, a lot of those folks ended up in the prison system and then had a hard time getting out,” said Sen. Welch. “If a person has an addiction problem, that is tough for them to address and it’s not as though a lecture is going to do it – they’re going to lapse and relapse. But we still seem, in this country much more than any other countries, to rely on the prison system to be the place and the criminal justice system to be the place where we somehow ‘address those issues.'” 

Through the bipartisan First Step Act, more than 27,000 formerly incarcerated individuals have been released early, while reducing recidivism by more than 30%. The First Step Act required the Bureau of Prisons to develop an assessment tool to appraise the risk recidivism and place incarcerated individuals in programs to reduce their risk, with early release for participants. It also reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some drug trafficking offenses, increased opportunities for judges to disregard statutory mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded compassionate release guidelines. 

In December, the Vermont Congressional Delegation wrote a letter to U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters to express their strong support for the Bureau’s plan to place a Residential Reentry Center (RRC) in Vermont to provide essential facilities, such as mental health support and substance abuse resources, to individuals transitioning out of Bureau of Prisons custody. 

In October, Senator Welch led 22 of his colleagues, including every Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat, in sending a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders emphasizing the importance of bipartisan collaboration to safeguard our Federal Defenders’ resources, warning that a budget shortfall for this critical program would threaten the constitutional right to an effective lawyer, as well as the integrity of the judicial system. 

Watch Senator Welch’s full remarks here