“It allowed dangerous people who reoffended and really hurt a number of people,” DeSantis said on The Ben Shapiro Show, suggesting that prisoners should not be granted early release and serve their full prison sentence. « So one of the things I want to do when I’m president is go to Congress and ask for the repeal of the First Step Act. »
The GOP candidates targeting the criminal justice bill is, to some extent, an illustration of how the party sees crime as a major election issue and a useful cudgel with which to beat Trump. It allows them to go after one of Trump’s signature successes without, necessarily, stinging his base.
But his policy is not so clear cut. Some of the individuals criticizing it were now promoters when the bill passed.
Steve Cortes, spokesman for the pro-Desantis super PAC Never Back Down, wrote a comment last week he criticized the « false law ». You accused Trump of ‘condescending to lobbying Hollywood celebrities like Kim Kardashian and her New York liberal son-in-law [Jared Kushner, a senior advisor to the ex-president].” As a Trump surrogate in May 2019, however, Cortes defended the First Step Act on CNNnoting that « conservatives actually occupy the high ground » and pointing out that « conservative Republican governors » were « shutting down prisons in America ».
Cortes did not respond to a request for comment.
Pence, meanwhile, worked alongside Kushner to help push the First Step Act with skeptical Republican lawmakers up the hill. But during his CNN Town Hall on the day the presidential campaign was launched, Trump’s former vice president said it was time to « rethink » the law.
« Now more than ever, we should be thinking about how to toughen the penalties for people who are victimizing families in this country, » he said.
Asa Hutchinson, a former DEA chief who has praised the First Step Act’s reduction in the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, also said it « moves us in the right direction, » but said as president he would be open to doing changes.
Crime remains a major issue for Republican voters. For candidates seeking the GOP nomination, it’s a time-tested strategy for railing against « lawlessness » in big Democratic-led cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Baltimore.
Republican pollster Adam Geller says he understands the strategy behind why DeSantis and others are arguing against the First Step Act as a way to differentiate themselves from Trump. But he said he doesn’t see it as an effective message to win voters or members of Congress with whom a future president should work.
“Assuming you become president, who exactly are you going to press to overturn this legislation. Republicans voted for it. So did the Democrats,” Gellar says. “When you say you’re going to overturn it, with whom?”
Alice Marie Johnson, who appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Trump after he commuted his federal life sentence on drug charges in 2018, has become something of an avatar for the First Step Act. Now a life reform activist Criminal justice leader of Taking Action for Good, which works to raise leniency stories and re-entry programs, said she was appalled by the movement against the law.
« What they are doing is dehumanizing people, » he said. “The increase in crime is not due to the First Step Act. I say… shame on them for misrepresenting this.
Ja’Ron Smith, a Trump White House policy adviser who worked on the bill, said the law had a measurable impact.
“The First Step Act focused on reducing reoffending, which it did dramatically,” Smith said.
According to the Department of Justice latest evaluation of the law, which came in April 2023, of those convicted of federal drug offenses, fewer than 13 percent went on to reoffend. Reoffending rate for inmates convicted of gun charges or those serving sentences for federal murder or aggravated assault crimes reoffended roughly a quarter of the time.
The intensified assault on the criminal justice reform bill signed by Trump has been led largely by the DeSantis camp, as the Florida governor is looking to dent the former president’s sizable double-digit lead over him in national polls .
Brett Tolman leads Right on Crime, an advocacy group pushing for conservative solutions to reduce crime and reduce the justice system’s burden on taxpayers. He says the arguments against the First Step Act are turning positive and compassionate development into a political wedge issue.
“[DeSantis] he figured he can use all that rhetoric and all that fear that the country has that we’re turning more lawlessness and use it against his number one opponent,” Tolman says.
He also notes that DeSantis and others are blaming a law that addresses only modest changes to the federal system, one of the smallest with fewer than 160,000 detainees serve – compared to estimated 1.7 million individuals incarcerated serving in the entire US prison system which consists of state, local, federal and tribal prisons.
Trump’s allies are fighting back, though not in defense of the legislative outcome, but to call DeSantis back for small talk on the issue.
“Ron DeSantis ran his campaign on Donald Trump’s America First Agenda…Now, he’s attacking President Trump on those very same issues, proving he’s just another wayward politician who will say whatever it takes to win,” Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for MAGA Inc., a Trump-backed super PAC, said in a statement.
DeSantis voted for an early version of the bill that passed the GOP-led House in 2018, when he was a member.
That bill supported rehabilitation programs in which prisoners take part, but made no changes to reduce the length of prison sentences. Trump signed into law a version that went further, enacting measures that reduced some mandatory federal sentences and increased the number of so-called good credits an inmate can earn for good behavior.
DeSantis, after securing the GOP gubernatorial nomination, resigned his House seat in September 2018. Trump did not sign the final draft, with the bipartisan additions, until December of that year.
During his State of the Union address two months later, Trump said it was proof that « leapfrogs for our country » when Democrats and Republicans work together and added that it has helped black Americans who are affected in disproportionately by the criminal justice system.
“This legislation reformed sentencing laws that unjustly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said during his 2019 address to the nation. “The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders a chance to reenter society as productive and law-abiding citizens ».
Trump and his former campaign team thought the First Step Act would produce a surge of support among black voters for his reelection campaign.
It didn’t materialise. Joe Biden won more than 90% of the black vote, according to an Fox News exit poll.