Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence Take Aim at the First Step Act, But There Are Serious Flaws in Their Arguments

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The First Step Act, which was highly touted by folks from both sides of the political spectrum, is now taking fire from some on the right who have taken to using it as a cudgel to wield against former President Donald Trump, who was instrumental in getting the legislation passed. Two prominent Republicans have blasted the legislation, which was intended to be a starting point for criminal justice reform.

To put it simply, the attacks are absolutely ridiculous.

The first was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who criticized the law during an interview with podcaster Ben Shapiro. “Under the Trump administration — he enacted a bill, basically a jailbreak bill, it’s called the First Step Act. It has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now re-offended, and really, really hurt a number of people,” he said.

“So one of the things I would want to do as president is go to Congress and seek the repeal of the First Step Act. If you are in jail, you should serve your time,” the governor continued. “And the idea that they’re releasing people who have not been rehabilitated early, so that they can prey on people in our society is a huge, huge mistake.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence, whose candidacy for president has elicited a chorus of yawns, also spoke out against the First Step Act during a CNN Townhall, saying “we need to take a step back from the approach of the First Step Act” and that America needs to “rethink” the legislation:

“But in the legislation that we passed, we not only created an opportunity to try and reduce recidivism, people going back to prison over and over again, to give them a new start in life, to make an honest living, but we also raised the penalties. We raised the penalties on serious offenders. And I must tell you, with this crime wave in our cities that is claiming incomprehensible numbers of lives…I frankly think we need to take a step back from the approach of the First Step Act. We need to get serious and tough on violent crime, and we need to give our cities and our states the resources to restore law and order to our streets. And I promise you, we’ll do that, if I’m your president.”

After being asked about DeSantis’ comments on the criminal justice legislation, Pence said: “I just said, I think we need to take a step back and rethink the First Step Act. We’ve got a crime wave in our major cities. And I think now, more than ever, we ought to be thinking about how we make penalties tougher on people that are victimizing families in this country. So, on that point, I would agree with others.”

To put it simply, DeSantis and Pence might have been partaking of President Joe Biden’s crack pipe program if they think repealing the First Step Act is a good idea.

The First Step Act includes several provisions that aim to reform the federal sentencing system and promote fairer and more just policies. One of the most significant reforms is the expansion of the “safety valve” provision, which allows judges to use their discretion to impose sentences below mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent offenses. This change helps prevent overly harsh sentences for individuals who do not pose a significant risk to public safety.

Additionally, the Act retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. This retroactive application allows thousands of individuals serving excessively harsh sentences for crack cocaine-related offenses to petition for resentencing.

The First Step Act also provided inmates with effective rehabilitation programs to decrease recidivism rates and improve their chances of successful reintegration into society. The Act expands the availability of evidence-based recidivism reduction programs, such as educational courses, vocational training, and substance abuse treatment, across the federal prison system.

Furthermore, the Act places a renewed focus on preparing inmates for life after release by establishing incentives for participation in these programs. Eligible inmates can earn time credits for completing these programs, which can be used to expedite their transition to pre-release custody, halfway houses, or home confinement. This incentivization encourages inmates to engage in self-improvement and lays the groundwork for a smoother transition back into their communities.

While the First Step Act has already shown promising results in its early stages of implementation, its true impact will be realized over time as more inmates are provided with opportunities for redemption and successful reintegration into society. The Act serves as a testament to the power of bipartisan collaboration and the recognition that comprehensive criminal justice reform is essential for building a safer and more equitable future for all Americans.

The First Step Act has shown that it can significantly reduce recidivism. The Justice Department’s 2022 report on the legislation revealed that only 16 percent of folks released under the law were rearrested. In 2023, this percentage dropped to 12.4 percent.

To give you a sense of why this is significant, the overall recidivism rate, according to the Bureau of Prisons, is around 43 percent. This means those released under the First Step Act re-offend at a drastically lower rate than those who weren’t. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The data shows that those claiming the First Step Act is a “jailbreak” law that leads to more are either lying, or ignorant of the facts. Perhaps there is a better line of attack to use against Trump.


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