Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been focusing on a popular cause among fellow Republicans: criminal justice reform. Last month, he vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have allowed some adults to expunge their criminal record if they were not convicted. In May, he declared that if elected President, he would repeal the First Step Act, which was signed by former President Trump in 2018 and which DeSantis supported in an earlier form when he was a congressman. The law expanded prison 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, reports Time. Amid DeSantis’ pressure, Trump backed away from what he used to tout as a major legislative victory. When Fox News asked Trump about sentencing reform, he spoke of a new proposal to punish drug dealers with the death penalty. DeSantis’ position is more extreme than the views of most Republican primary voters. “Right now, the political rhetoric may be tough, but that doesn’t change where the base is,” says Micah Derry 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.”
An Adams Project poll examining conservative views on safety and crime found that 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.” 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 by Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies. A 2023 Justice Department report on the First Step Act found that since it became law in 2018, more than 30,000 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%.