Ron DeSantis has been cracking down on a popular cause among fellow Republicans: criminal justice reform.
Last month, the Florida governor vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have allowed some adults to expunge their criminal record if they were not convicted. And he’s shifted from his own past positions: in May, he declared that if elected President, he would repeal the First Step Act, which was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018 and which DeSantis supported in an earlier form when he was a congressman. (The law expanded educational programming and job training opportunities in addition to reducing some mandatory minimum sentences.)
DeSantis’ move to the right on criminal justice reform in part reveals that violent crime can be a fruitful focus for Republican primary candidates, and allows him to draw a contrast with Trump, the current frontrunner in the race. Amid DeSantis’ pressure, Trump has begun backing away from what he used to tout as a major legislative victory. When Fox News asked Trump in June about sentencing reform, he spoke of a new proposal to punish drug dealers with the death penalty.
Read More: The DeSantis Project
Yet DeSantis’ position is more extreme than the views of most Republican primary voters, experts say. “Right now, the political rhetoric may be tough, but that doesn’t change where the base is,” says Micah Derry, CEO of the Adams Project, which is focused on conservative criminal justice reform. ”That’s important for people to understand—that the base hasn’t moved. They want a safe community, to support law enforcement, want people held accountable, and they want to know that there is a pathway for rehabilitation.”
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The Adams Project published a poll on July 6 examining conservative views on safety and crime. More than 80% of focus group participants supported the idea that a criminal justice system must allow incarcerated people to “have the chance to get the skills and training necessary to pursue a better path after prison.” It also found that GOP voters responded negatively to messages that attack the First Step Act, noting that the provisions “almost perfectly matched” or were “pretty close” to views of 86% of Republicans. Focus group members referred to them as “attacks on Trump” and “political posturing.” Many focus group members viewed the traditional “tough-on-crime” approach as dated and out of touch and emphasized the importance of second chances.
DeSantis’ campaign did not response to a request for comment.
As Trump’s most competitive challenger at this point in the race, DeSantis has significant influence over the rhetoric and policy positions animating the primary. Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, who is running for President in 2024, said on the campaign trail it is time to “rethink” the First Step Act. Former Republican Congressman Doug Collins, who sponsored the House version of the First Step Act, is worried about the ripple effects DeSantis’ position could have on the rest of the party. “It is concerning and that’s why we’re talking about it,” Collins says. “It is posturing for a political campaign… I see it a little bit more as an outlier.”
If the GOP shifts towards DeSantis, it could hamper one of the few areas of bipartisanship left in Washington. Eight in 10 likely voters support criminal justice reform, including 74% of Republicans, 80% of independents, and 85% of Democrats, according to a national survey of likely voters in the 2022 midterm elections conducted by Democratic and Republican pollsters Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies. “Criminal justice policy has been one of the most robust areas of bipartisan cooperation,” says Jenna Bottler, executive director of Justice Action Network, which advocates for bipartisan criminal justice reform.
Not all criminal justice reform has been popular with Republicans, especially measures tied to defunding the police, bail reform, or shortening long sentences even for violent offenders. But proposals tied to the idea of second chances and helping people who have been incarcerated transition back into society have gotten more support.
Other Republicans in the 2024 race aren’t making the same bet as DeSantis. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, for example, was a key lawmaker in developing the First Step Act and also supported a bipartisan police de-escalation training law. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A 2023 Justice Department report on the First Step Act found that since it became law in 2018, more than 30,000 federal inmates have gone through its programming and earned early release with only 12.5% arrested and imprisoned again; that’s much lower than the overall federal recidivism rate of 43%. “Don’t take away something that we know is working and don’t channel this false narrative about the First Step Act that you’ve borrowed from the alarming rise in crime that you’re trying to capitalize on as a politician,” says Brett Tolman, executive director of Right on Crime, a national campaign of the Texas Public Policy Foundation focused on supporting conservative solutions for reducing crime and reforming offenders.
As the presidential race heats up, it will become clearer whether DeSantis’ positioning to the right of Trump on criminal justice reform is resonating with voters. “Ron DeSantis, on this issue, is unfortunately out of step with Republicans across the country. He is also out of step with his own track record,” says Bottler. “We’re seeing somebody sort of attempt to see what might catch fire in primary politics. Unfortunately, this one’s just going to fall flat.”
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