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DeSantis Axes Florida Criminal Justice Reform

Stuck in distant second place in the race for the GOP Presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vetoed a new criminal justice reform measure on June 27, 2023, even though it was passed by most members of his own party in the statehouse where they dominate.

The measure would have allowed those whose criminal charges were sealed or expunged to have their criminal record cleared. It also provided expungement for charges related to offenses committed as a minor, though not if the offender was charged as an adult.

The move was widely seen as an attempt to revive his flailing campaign, much like a pledge he made if elected to repeal the First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) signed into law by the front-runner, former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R). In remarks made on May 26, 2023, DeSantis called the criminal justice reform measure “a jailbreak bill,” which “has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people.”

DeSantis didn’t make it clear exactly who these victims were. But he voted to adopt the law while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida’s 6thCongressional District. Nevertheless, he vowed to repeal FSA, which expanded early-release programs and modified sentencing for nonviolent drug offences, including mandatory minimum sentences, as PLN has reported. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.34.]

As a result of those reforms, the law was supposed to reduce the number of people incarcerated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). But recent data have shown a small increase in BOP’s prisoner population, and the agency has also run into repeated problems calculating and applying sentence credits provided to prisoners by the law, delaying implementation for over four years. [See: PLN, June 2023, p.29; and Feb. 2023, p.10.]

The New York Times reported that DeSantis and his allies perceived FSA as a political vulnerability for Trump, so they wanted to leverage it during the nomination race despite DeSantis’ flip-flop—which Trump allies were happy to point out.

“So now Swampy Politician Ron DeSanctimonious is claiming he voted for it before he voted against it,” replied Trump spokesman Steven Cheung.

DeSantis also portrayed himself as an unwavering foe of illegal immigration, claiming that Trump attacked him for opposing amnesty legislation while DeSantis was in Congress. He further criticized Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing to Florida as a model response. But a New York Times analysis published on July 22, 2023, found that the governor’s tack toward opposing vaccine mandates—before the pandemic’s Delta wave sent deaths soaring in the summer and fall of 2021—cost Florida an extra 23,000 lost lives.

The governor’s shot at FSA might have been taken in revenge for Trump’s recent criticism of rising crime rates in Florida, the state the former President now calls home. DeSantis defended his policies, asserting it was Trump’s actions that undermined law and order.  

Sources: New York Times, Newsweek

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