Struggling DeSantis and Pence attack criminal justice law they championed

As a Republican congressman, Ron DeSantis was a supporter of legislation that made moderate reforms to the federal prison system intended to reduce recidivism and mass incarceration – a cause that was also championed by then president Donald Trump and his deputy, Mike Pence.

Five years later, DeSantis, now Florida’s governor, and Pence are struggling to overtake Trump’s lead among Republicans as they vie for the party’s presidential nomination, and have turned against the criminal justice measure they both supported in an effort to win over conservative voters.

“Under the Trump administration, he enacted a bill, basically a jailbreak bill. It’s called the First Step Act. It has allowed dangerous people out of prison, who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people,” DeSantis told the rightwing pundit Ben Shapiro in a May interview, vowing that “one of the things I want to do as president is go to Congress and seek the repeal of the First Step Act.”

Pence echoed a similar message, telling the Washington Examiner that as president he would “take a step back from” the law.

Their comments were the latest instances of Republicans wooing voters with promises to crack down on crime, a time-tested tactic for the GOP that last year helped the party win back control of the House.

But conservatives who supported the First Step Act in 2018 say there’s no reason to repeal it, nor do they believe attacking it will help Pence and DeSantis overtake Trump’s substantial popularity advantage among Republican voters.

“You’re in a political, what I call, silly season of you say a lot of things, and crime is a concern, public safety is a concern across the country,” said Doug Collins, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who introduced an early version of the act.

He said the law was “not an issue until it was brought up, and it’s not an issue that seems to be gaining a lot of traction out there, especially when the facts of the bill were put out there for Republican voters.”

One of the biggest pieces of criminal justice reform legislation Congress has passed in years, the First Step Act reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes, created new rehabilitation programs for released inmates, banned the shackling of pregnant women and expanded time-served credit for most federal prisoners.

Only a minority of America’s prison population, the largest in the world, is incarcerated in the federal system, but one of the act’s chief goals was to create programs that helped people released under the act keep out of prison for good.

Mike Pence

According to justice department data, the recidivism rate for those released under the law is just over 12%, as compared to the 45% rate the Government Accountability Office says is the baseline for federal prisoners overall.

“When we see policymakers talking about the First Step Act, and trying to make some sort of misguided connection with crime, we have to be really realistic that the research and the evidence doesn’t point that way,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive non-profit.

The act’s passage represented one of the few instances in which Trump and his Republican allies in Congress joined together with Democrats, and their legislative push was endorsed by outside groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative benefactors Koch Industries.

The version of the act Collins introduced mostly dealt with ways to reduce recidivism, and DeSantis voted for the bill before resigning later in 2018 to mount his successful campaign for Florida governor. The Senate then added provisions dealing with sentencing reform, and as he signed it, Trump said the legislation “brings much-needed hope to many families during the holiday season”.

Two years later, Covid-19 broke out and crime spiked nationwide, a phenomenon that appears to be relaxing but which has had an enduring impact on American politics. The former president currently leads the polls among Republican presidential candidates, but doesn’t say much about the First Step Act, having now shifted his demands to calling for Congress to slash the FBI and justice department’s funding over their investigations against him.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has made an about-face on criminal justice policy since announcing his presidential run in May. While he signed a major criminal justice reform bill in 2019, he last month vetoed two measures dealing with expungements and probation violations, despite them passing with overwhelming support in Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature.

Writing in RealClearPolitics, Steve Cortes, a spokesman for the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down Pac, said that as a congressman, the governor only supported the initial “law-and-order version” of the First Step Act, and not the one that Trump enacted.

“This obfuscation on Trump’s jailbreak points to an even more serious problem for the 45th president as he seeks re-election: he remains unable or unwilling to admit policy mistakes and to propose appropriate reversals or reforms,” Cortes wrote.

Arthur Rizer, a conservative advocate for the act who co-founded ARrow Center for Justice Reform, remembers DeSantis as a supporter of the law during his time in Congress. Pence, meanwhile, at one point went to the Capitol to personally negotiate with GOP senators on getting the bill passed.

The former vice-president is currently polling in the single digits among Republican candidates, while DeSantis is in a distant second place to Trump.

“I think that they sense that there is a potential to create another wedge issue. And they are taking this opportunity to distinguish themselves from Trump. They can’t go out for Trump for the indictment stuff, so they’re looking for ways to pick at him,” Rizer said of the attacks on the First Step Act.

“It actually breaks my heart to see people turning on something that’s done a lot of good for people who were in prison for relatively minor stuff. And now that they’re out with their families, and we’re using it as a political football, to score points and to dunk on the other side.”


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