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DeSantis and Pence, Facing Political Challenges, Criticize Criminal Justice Reform They Once Supported

by Jessica
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Ron DeSantis

During his tenure as a Republican congressman, Ron DeSantis championed a reform of the federal prison system designed to cut back on recidivism and mass incarceration, an initiative also supported by then-President Donald Trump and his Vice President, Mike Pence.

Five years on, DeSantis, now serving as Governor of Florida, and Pence are competing against each other for the Republican presidential nomination, with both struggling to surpass Trump’s popularity within the party. Surprisingly, they have both now distanced themselves from the criminal justice reform they once backed in an effort to curry favor with conservative constituents.

DeSantis, in an interview with right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, criticized the First Step Act – the law brought into effect by the Trump administration and described it as essentially freeing dangerous criminals who have since recommitted crimes causing significant harm. He pledged that, as president, he would strive to repeal the First Step Act. Similarly, Pence voiced his intention to “take a step back from” the law in a conversation with the Washington Examiner.

These statements mirror a broader Republican campaign strategy that aims to attract voters by promising stronger crime control measures, a tactic that previously helped the party regain control of the House.

However, conservative supporters of the First Step Act dispute any need for its repeal and doubt the efficacy of these criticisms in boosting Pence’s and DeSantis’s popularity among Republican voters, given Trump’s significant lead.

Doug Collins, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, referred to these statements as political rhetoric, saying that crime and public safety are valid concerns nationwide. He affirmed that the law did not become controversial until it was brought into question, and it doesn’t appear to gain considerable traction among Republican voters, especially when the bill’s details are transparently presented.

The First Step Act is one of the most significant pieces of criminal justice reform legislation passed by Congress in recent years. It aimed to lessen mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related crimes, introduced new rehabilitation programs for released inmates, forbade the shackling of pregnant women, and increased time-served credit for most federal prisoners.

Despite only a minority of America’s prison population being incarcerated in the federal system, one of the primary goals of the act was to create initiatives to help individuals released under the act avoid future imprisonment.

According to data from the justice department, the recidivism rate for those released under the law is just over 12%, a considerable decrease from the 45% rate that the Government Accountability Office reported as the federal baseline.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, stated that policymakers criticizing the First Step Act and linking it with rising crime rates need to acknowledge that research does not support these claims.

DeSantis’s stance on criminal justice policy took a 180-degree turn following his presidential campaign launch in May. While he signed a significant criminal justice reform bill in 2019, he recently vetoed two measures dealing with expungements and probation violations, despite their broad support in Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature.

Citing Steve Cortes from RealClearPolitics, a spokesman for the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down Pac, the Governor initially backed the “law-and-order version” of the First Step Act but didn’t support the final version enacted by Trump.

Arthur Rizer, a supporter of the act and co-founder of the ARrow Center for Justice Reform, recalls DeSantis as a proponent of the law during his congressional tenure. Pence also had a personal hand in negotiating the bill’s passage with GOP senators.

Currently, the former vice president’s polling numbers are in single digits among Republican candidates, with DeSantis trailing Trump by a significant margin.

Rizer suggests both candidates perceive an opportunity to create a new divisive issue and separate themselves from Trump. “It’s truly disheartening to witness people abandoning an initiative that has positively impacted those incarcerated for relatively minor offenses,” he commented, regretting the law’s use as a political tool to gain an advantage.

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