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Ron DeSantis' Tough-on-Crime Agenda Targets Signature Trump Criminal Justice Reform Law

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As crime rates make headlines in America's major cities, one White House hopeful wants to get rid of a signature law on criminal justice reform. 

The First Step Act became law during the Trump administration. It revised federal prison sentencing guidelines, helping to prepare inmates to return to society and reduce recidivism. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says the bipartisan measure is too soft-on-crime, and says if elected, he wants to repeal it. 

The Republican presidential candidate calls the First Step Act, a "Jailbreak Bill," claiming its allowed dangerous people out of prison who have then gone on to commit more serious crimes.  

"If you are in jail you should serve your time, and the idea they are releasing people who have not been rehabilitated early so they can prey on people in our society is a huge huge mistake," DeSantis said recently on the Ben Shapiro Show.

slider img 2Repealing the legislation would be difficult, given the wide bipartisan support that sent it to President Trump's desk back in 2018. The House approved the bill by a vote of 360-59, including a "yes" vote from then-Florida U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.

An architect of the bill, former Republican Georgia Congressman Dough Collins, says the reversal by DeSantis is simply an effort to differentiate himself from Trump.

"I think this was more of a political move for some headlines that frankly, should have been thought about better," Collins told CBN News.

The First Step Act aims to tackle recidivism rates by addressing the needs of prisoners before release.

"Looking at things like alcohol addiction, mental health issues, educational gaps, skills gaps," Collins said.

Data paints the measure as a success. A 2023 Bureau of Prisons report shows less than a 12 percent recidivism rate for a majority of those released under the program. That's down from the 50 percent rate projected before the First Step Act became law. 

"The ones who need to stay there need to stay there, and if they've done terrible things, they need to stay there completely. But just the way our system works is people do come home," said Collins.

Christian ministries also backed the legislation, viewing it as an opportunity to make an impact on criminal justice reform.

"The First Step Act signaled an opportunity for ministries to really articulate a stance on punishment. What does it mean to hold people accountable in a way that respects who they are as people made by God with dignity, and a need for accountability that responds to crime in our communities that recognizes the harm to victims," said Kate Trammell, vice president of advocacy for Prison Fellowship.

Trammell says while it's important for lawmakers to address violence, she hopes the priority is addressing what's broken with the system, rather than what works. 

"We want elected and appointed officials to grapple with these challenges on our behalf so that we are safer and stronger as communities, but we want them to do so taking advantage of everything we've learned in the past decades about how to do that in a way that produces real results. And the First Step Act is one of those policies that is yielding good fruit," Trammell told CBN News. 

Still, as big city leaders face criticism from residents about being less safe, a number of Republican candidates are joining DeSantis in calling for a more tough-on-crime approach. Mike Pence recently admitted it's time to "rethink" the First Step Act. 

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About The Author

Caitlin Burke Headshot

Caitlin Burke serves as National Security Correspondent and a general assignment reporter for CBN News. She has also hosted the CBN News original podcast, The Daily Rundown. Some of Caitlin’s recent stories have focused on the national security threat posed by China, America’s military strength, and vulnerabilities in the U.S. power grid. She joined CBN News in July 2010, and over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to cover stories both domestically and abroad. Caitlin began her news career working as a production assistant in Richmond, Virginia, for the NBC affiliate WWBT