When President Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018, he had visions of using the legislation to make major inroads with Black and moderate swing voters. The law was hailed by some as a rare bipartisan achievement for the 45th president and the beginning of a major shift in GOP politics, one that would move the party past the 1980s tough-on-crime mindset to a focus on rehabilitation, racial fairness and second chances.
Three-and-a-half years later, few Republicans — Trump included — seem not at all interested in talking about it, reports Politico.
With spikes in crime registering as a top concern for voters, Republicans have increasingly reverted o their 1980s mindset. Talk of new legislation has taken a back seat to calls for enhanced policing and accusations that Democratic-led cities are veering toward lawlessness.
Trump doesn't mention criminal justice reform, having grown convinced the First Step Act never produced the spike in support from Black voters that he expected.
Republicans made stiffer criminal sentencing a focus during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Discussions of rising crime are a daily focus on Fox News. Out on the campaign trail, GOP candidates are running ads demonizing Democrats for not doing enough to support police.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called the First Step Act — which he opposed — a “deadly mistake.”
In Georgia last week, Republican gubernatorial candidates, former Sen. David Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp clashed in a debate over who and what is to blame for rising crime in the state.
“The focus has changed because the situation has changed. We’re not the same country,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
For some advocates, the Republican cooling to criminal justice reform confirms the belief the interest wasn’t ever sincere. For lawmakers and advocates on the right who worked on the First Step Act, the shift has been similarly disconcerting, raising concern it freezes political momentum for further reform.
“I personally think there’s just as many people that want to do criminal justice reform as the last several years, but I think their voices are quiet now, and those that are opposed to the First Step Act are still opposed and have gotten louder,” said Brett Tolman of Right on Crime. Tolman added that much work continues behind the scenes. “It feels like we just have to bide our time a bit and get past when the emotion of all of the political rhetoric is at the forefront.” “President Trump was always skeptical that [First Step] was the right policy and that it would be received well by voters, and he has remarked to almost anyone who’d listen that it was something Jared [Kushner] talked him into,” said one former Trump official. “There’s always a certain push and pull with President Trump between being the hardliner and the deal-maker and this is a classic example of where that conflict emerged in the policy sense.”