Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it a “jailbreak bill.” Former Vice President Mike Pence said “we need to take a step back” from it. Ex-Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson proclaimed “there’s probably some areas there that can be adjusted.” All were taking aim at the First Step Act, a 2018 law signed by President Trump that ushered in modest changes to the federal criminal justice system by addressing over-incarceration and prioritizing rehabilitation and reduced recidivism. It was, for a time, one of the major achievements touted by Trump and his team, hailed as evidence conservatives could achieve what liberals couldn’t: a reduction in racial disparities in federal sentencing. Now Trump barely talks about the law as his rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination attack it as a chief contributor to the rise in violent crime, Politico reports. “It has allowed dangerous people who have reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people,” DeSantis said, suggesting that prisoners should not get early release and hould sserve their full prison sentence. “So one of the things I want to do when I’m president is go to Congress and seek the repeal of the First Step Act.”
GOP candidates targeting the law is an illustration of how the party views crime as a major election issue and a useful cudgel to bludgeon Trump with. It allows them to go after one of Trump’s signature achievements without needling his base. Some of those criticizing the measure were promoters when it was passed. Steve Cortes, a spokesperson for the pro-Desantis super PAC Never Back Down, accused Trump of having “acquiesced to the lobbying of Hollywood celebrities like Kim Kardashian as well as his liberal New York son-in-law [Jared Kushner].” As a Trump surrogate in 2019, however, Cortes defended the First Step Act on CNN, remarking that “conservatives actually occupy the high ground,” and emphasizing that “conservative Republican governors” were “closing prisons in America.” Pence worked alongside Kushner to help push the First Step Act with skeptical Republican lawmakers. During his CNN town hall the day of presidential campaign launch, Trump’s former vice president said it was time to “rethink” the law. “Now more than ever, we ought to be thinking about how we make penalties tougher on people that are victimizing families in this country,” he said. Crime remains a top issue for Republican voters. For candidates seeking the GOP nomination, it’s a time-tested strategy to rail against the “lawlessness” in big, Democratic-led cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.