Struggling DeSantis, Pence attack criminal justice law they championed

<span>Photo: Sean Rayford/AP</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/ 40b2b6b453b” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/ cf0e62e2143740b2b6b453b”/><button class=

Photograph: Sean Rayford/AP

As a Republican congressman, Ron DeSantis was a supporter of legislation that made moderate reforms to the federal prison system aimed at reducing recidivism and mass incarceration — a cause also championed by President Donald Trump and his deputy, Mike Pence.

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

Related: Republicans have their most diverse primary list ever – but they still deny racism exists

“Under the Trump administration, he signed into law a bill, basically a jailbreak bill. This is called the First Step Law. It got dangerous people out of jail, who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people,” 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 ask for the 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 comments were the latest examples of Republicans wooing voters with tough-on-crime pledges, a tried-and-true GOP tactic that last year helped the party regain control of the House.

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

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

He said the law was “not an issue until it’s been brought up, and it’s not an issue that seems to be gaining much traction, especially when the facts of the bill have been presented to Republican voters.”

One of the biggest pieces of criminal justice reform legislation passed by Congress in years, the First Step Act reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, created new rehabilitation programs for released inmates, banned the shackling of pregnant women, and expanded credit for time served 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 purposes of the law was to create programs that helped people released under the law stay out of prison for good.

Mike Pence

The passage of the law represented one of the few instances where Trump, Pence and their Republican allies in Congress joined the Democrats. Photography: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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

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

The passage of the law represented one of the few instances where Trump and his Republican allies in Congress joined the Democrats, and their legislative push 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 dealt primarily 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 sentencing reform provisions, and in signing it, Trump said the legislation “brings much-needed hope to many families this holiday season.”

Two years later, Covid-19 broke out and crime skyrocketed across the country, a phenomenon that seems to be easing but has had a lasting impact on American politics. The former president is currently leading the polls among Republican presidential candidates, but is saying little about the First Step Act, having now redirected his demands to call on Congress to cut funding to the FBI and Justice Department for their investigations against him.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has flip-flopped 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 regarding disbarments and probation violations, despite passing them with overwhelming support in Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature.

Related: The DeSantis blocking campaign: how to lose friends and alienate people

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, not the one Trump signed into law.

“This obfuscation on Trump’s jailbreak highlights an even deeper problem for the 45th president as he seeks 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 supporter of the law during his time in Congress. Pence, meanwhile, at one point traveled to Capitol Hill to personally negotiate with GOP senators to pass the bill.

The former vice president is currently voting in single digits among Republican candidates, while DeSantis is far behind Trump.

“I think they feel there is potential to create another corner problem. And they take the opportunity to distinguish themselves from Trump. They can’t go after Trump for the indictment, so they’re looking for ways to go after him,” Rizer said of the attacks on the First Step Act.

“It breaks my heart to see people turn to something that has done a lot of good for people who were in jail 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 dive to the other side.

Leave a Comment