Struggling, DeSantis and Pence attack the criminal justice system they stood for

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Photo: Sean Rayford/AP

As a Republican congressman, Ron DeSantis championed legislation that introduced moderate reforms to the federal prison system designed to reduce recidivism and mass incarceration — a cause also championed by then-President Donald Trump and his deputy, Mike Pence.

Five years later, DeSantis, now the governor of Florida, and Pence are struggling to overtake Trump’s lead among Republicans as they compete 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.

Related: Republicans have their most diverse primary slate ever — but they still deny that racism exists

“Under the Trump administration, he passed a law, effectively an escape law. It’s called the First Step Act. It has let dangerous people out of jail, who have now offended some people and really hurt them a lot,” DeSantis told right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro in an interview in May, promising that “one of the things I want to do as president is go to Congress and seek repeal of the First Step Act.”

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

Their remarks were the latest examples of Republicans courting voters with promises to crack down on crime, a time-tested tactic for the GOP that helped the party regain control of the House last year.

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

“You’re in a political, what I call silly season where 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 draft of the law.

He said the law “wasn’t an issue until it was brought up, and it’s not an issue that seems to be getting a lot of attention there, especially when the facts of the bill got out to Republican voters.”

One of the largest pieces of criminal justice reform legislation passed by Congress in years, the First Step Act lowered mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes, created new rehabilitation programs for released prisoners, banned chaining of pregnant women, and extended time credit for most federal prisoners.

Only a minority of the US prison population, the largest in the world, is incarcerated in the federal system, but one of the main goals of the law was to create programs that helped people released under the law stay out of prison for good.

The passage of the law was one of the few instances where Trump, Pence and their Republican allies in Congress collaborated with the Democrats. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

According to Justice Department data, the recidivism rate for those released under the Act is just over 12%, compared to the 45% rate that the Government Accountability Office says is the baseline for federal prisoners in general.

“When we see policymakers talking about the First Step Act and trying to make a misleading connection to crime, we have to be very realistic that the research and evidence don’t point in that direction,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, a forward-thinking nonprofit organization.

The passage of the bill was one of the few instances where Trump and his Republican allies in Congress collaborated with Democrats, and their legislative impetus was endorsed by outside groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative benefactors Koch Industries.

The version of the law Collins introduced was primarily about ways to reduce recidivism, and DeSantis voted in favor of the bill before resigning later in 2018 to launch his successful campaign for Florida governor. The Senate then added provisions on sentencing reform, and as he signed it, Trump said the legislation “gives much-needed hope to many families during the holiday season.”

Two years later, Covid-19 broke out and crime rose across the country, a phenomenon that may seem relaxing but has had a lasting impact on American politics. The former president is currently leading the polls of Republican presidential candidates but is not saying much about the First Step Act, having now shifted his demands to a call for Congress to cut funding to the FBI and Justice Department over their investigations against him.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has seen a U-turn in criminal justice policy since announcing his presidential run in May. While signing a major criminal justice reform bill into law in 2019, last month he vetoed two measures dealing with suspensions and probation violations, despite passing them with overwhelming support in Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature.

Related: The DeSantis Delay Campaign: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

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

“This clouding of Trump’s jailbreak points to an even more serious problem for the 45th president seeking re-election: He remains unable or unwilling to admit policy mistakes and propose appropriate reversals or reforms,” ​​Cortes wrote.

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

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

“I think they feel there is a potential to create another wedge problem. And they are using this opportunity to differentiate themselves from Trump. They can’t go after Trump for impeachment, so they’re looking for ways to bully him,” Rizer said of the attacks on the First Step Act.

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


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