On the campaign trail, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has attacked Donald Trump’s signature prison reform bill, calling it a “jailbreak bill” and claiming it “allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people.”
But as a congressman, DeSantis voted for a House version of the bill in May 2018 containing some of the same provisions he and his campaign now condemn.
A CNN KFile review of DeSantis’ comments as a congressman and governor also found that he once supported early release for some prisoners and said he was open to easing mandatory minimum guidelines – provisions in the First Step Act, the prison reform bill, he now says he would repeal.
“At the end of the day, I want to keep the public safe,” DeSantis said in a March 2019 news conference. “I want to hold people accountable. But I also recognize that there are, you know, some instances in which, you know, folks have paid their debt and we are probably wasting money if they’re not a threat to society and so we’re gonna look at all that.”
DeSantis’ turn on the prison reform bill mirrors the changing political winds on criminal justice reform once more popular among Republicans. Though the bill was signed into law in December 2018 with overwhelming bipartisan support, spikes in crime during the pandemic have shifted the politics on the issue with more Republicans favoring the tough-on-crime approaches that the party has historically embraced.
Now, DeSantis wants to repeal the bill.
“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. 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,” DeSantis said on the Ben Shapiro podcast last month.
Overall, according to Department of Justice statistics, the recidivism rate – criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison – was 12.4% with inmates released because of the First Step Act. The number is significantly lower than the 49.3% overall recidivism rate for all federal prisoners, according to the US Sentencing Commission.
While a congressman, DeSantis voted for a version of the bill in the House in May 2018, but he resigned to run for governor before the final bill came to a vote later that year.
His campaign claims the bill became significantly more liberal – a charge disputed by the bill’s lead Republican sponsor – and that DeSantis would have voted against the final version.
DeSantis and his campaign have pointed to the release of a convicted terrorist financier who was freed due to the compassionate release provisions in the law – despite the fact these same provisions were in the bill DeSantis voted for.
They’ve also attacked “good time credit,” which can reduce a prisoner’s sentence for good behavior – even though the House bill DeSantis voted for allowed significantly more people to receive earned and good time credits than the Senate version that became law, which included a much more robust list of excluded offenses.
“Ron DeSantis voted for the bill, which, by the way to say it was, less quote liberal – I love this line where you can tell we’re in election mode,” said former Rep. Doug Collins, the House bill’s lead Republican sponsor and former ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, in an interview. “The bill actually in the House had more good time credit provisions.”
“It’s amazing to me that up until six weeks ago, Ron DeSantis had never said a bad thing about the First Step Act,” Collins added.
DeSantis’ campaign has also pointed to retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act – which allowed more than 4,226 federal prisoners serving since-reformed mandatory minimum crack sentences to motion the court for resentencing – as one main reasons DeSantis would have opposed the final bill.
Those who worked with Congress and the White House on the bill’s passage like Holly Harris – the former president and executive director of Justice Action Network, the country’s largest bipartisan criminal justice reform organization – noted DeSantis seemed to pick and choose which provisions of the bill were so-called “jailbreak” ones.
“It’s too cute by half,” Harris told CNN. “And it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve already gone out there and criticized the provisions that he voted for. They’ve already done that. It’s not as if he came out after passage of the Senate bill and railed against it and said he opposed it.”
DeSantis’ campaign maintains that he never supported the final version of the bill.
“At no point, as a congressman or as governor, has Ron DeSantis ever supported the final version of the First Step Act,” DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin told CNN in an email.
The shift in the Republican Party’s stance on criminal justice reform is not just apparent with DeSantis, but top staff working on his campaign and Never Back Down, the cash-flush SuperPAC backing his campaign, who now criticize the law.
His rapid response director, Christina Pushaw – one of the bill’s strongest critics – once strongly backed Trump on criminal justice reform. Ken Cuccinelli, the PAC’s founder, has backed DeSantis’ attacks but was one of the bill’s strongest proponents. Steve Cortes, a spokesperson for the PAC advocated for the law on CNN in 2019 but recently wrote a commentary attacking the bill and now claims he privately opposed the law.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, once a proponent of the bill, also reversed his position on the bill, saying at a CNN town hall earlier this month that we need to “rethink” the law.
Early in his first term as a governor in July 2019, DeSantis appeared on a criminal justice reform-focused round table event with Pence, Ivanka Trump at Operation New Hope, an organization focused on providing support, job skills training, and employment for those released from prison.
DeSantis pointed to the First Step Act as a potential model for prison reform and re-entry programs in Florida.
“We, I think, need to look at after seeing what the federal government did with the prison reform and how to do some re-entry,” the governor said. “We’ve seen some successes in Florida. We probably have more to do at the state level to continue to pursue success. And at the end of the day, you have somebody that’s committed a crime, they’re serving time if they’re getting out one way or another. Don’t we want them to get out with a chance to be productive?”
At the event, and a later one, Pence and Trump strongly praised the First Step Act’s work on criminal justice reform. In a press release about the event, DeSantis praised Operation New Hope’s efforts on re-entry programs.
“I greatly appreciate Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump’s great work on this issue and look forward to the continued success of these re-entry programs,” DeSantis added.