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Closing Argument

Why DeSantis Wants to Kill Trump’s Prison Reform Law

The Florida governor aims to be tougher on crime than any other presidential hopeful.

A White man, wearing a short-sleeved blue button up shirt and jeans, holds a microphone as he speaks to a crowd. Several people are seated in the background. A Texas flag hangs from the wall.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a town hall meeting in Eagle Pass, Texas, on June 26, 2023.

This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.

On Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a criminal justice reform bill that passed the state House and Senate with near-unanimous approval.

The legislation would have made it possible for an adult to have their criminal history expunged — essentially erased from public records — even if they had previously received an expungement in the juvenile justice system. Criminal records can hamper access to employment, housing and more.

The Florida bill was limited in comparison to similar laws recently passed in other states. For example, it would not have applied to people with criminal convictions, erasing only the records of those who were found not guilty, had their cases dropped or were arrested but never charged.

NBC News’ Matt Dixon reports the veto was a surprise to proponents, given its strong support in the Republican-dominated state legislature, but the move makes sense considering DeSantis’ ambitions in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

As early as March 2023 — two months before he officially launched his presidential campaign — DeSantis’ advisors made it clear that they wanted him to run to the right of former President Donald Trump on crime. This week, Florida’s largest police union endorsed DeSantis, at least in part due to his hardline stances on crime and punishment.

DeSantis’ most direct shot at Trump is his promise to seek the repeal of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill Trump signed in December 2018. The governor has called it a “jailbreak bill,” a characterization that drew criticism from across the political spectrum. Another conservative commentator pointed to the sheer infeasibility of getting Congress to repeal the bill, given its enduring popularity with lawmakers.

The First Step Act reduced some mandatory minimum sentences, opened new pathways for compassionate release, expanded job training opportunities, and made technical tweaks to how people in federal prison could earn time off for certain behavior. It also changed laws on certain prison conditions, like banning the shackling of pregnant prisoners during childbirth.

According to an April Department of Justice report, people released under First Step provisions have been rearrested for new crimes at a rate of about 12%, a fraction of the overall federal recidivism rate of 43%.

Some provisions of the law have been implemented more smoothly than others. One regulation that the government has struggled to achieve is ensuring that people are held at prisons within 500 driving miles from their home. Last week, Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters announced that some facilities would be changing designation (for example, from medium-security to low-security) to help meet the distance requirement.

DeSantis voted for an early version of the First Step Act as a congressman. In 2019, as governor, he described “successes” related to the law when discussing it as a possible model for state-level reforms, CNN reported this week. By the time the bill reached the U.S. House for final passage, DeSantis had resigned his seat to seek the Florida governorship. He has pushed back on the suggestion that he’s been hypocritical about his position on the First Step Act, arguing that he never supported the final version.

Republican criticism of the law is not new. The First Step Act served as an occasional punching bag during the 2022 midterms as part of a GOP messaging campaign built on fear of crime. DeSantis is also not alone in the 2024 Republican field: Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have also criticized the law, though in more muted tones than DeSantis.

Trump’s relationship with the law has been conflicted. He championed the law loudly during his 2019 State of the Union address, and he ran a Super Bowl ad promoting it during the 2020 campaign. Then, after the post-George Floyd protests in 2020, Trump largely shied away from the law, and by some reports, has regretted even supporting it in the first place.

“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,” one Trump staffer told Politico last year.

That tension was laid bare most recently in a Fox News interview. When host Brett Baier asked the former president about First Step, and how his 2024 opponents were using it against him, Trump brought up Alice Johnson, a woman who was serving a life sentence for drug trafficking until Trump commuted her sentence in 2018. “She was treated very unfairly,” Trump said.

Baier reminded Trump that under his repeated, casual proposal to execute drug dealers, Johnson herself would have faced the death penalty. Trump, visibly startled, replied first by saying it would be a matter of severity, and then by noting his proposal wouldn’t be retroactive. “She wouldn’t be killed, it would start as of now,” Trump said.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.