DeSantis’s criminal justice record in Florida scrutinized amid Trump criticism

Election 2024 Republicans
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-FL) new attacks against former President Donald Trump’s 2018 First Step Act are complicated by a Florida bill he signed into law that loosened the felony thresholds for some serious crimes. Charlie Neibergall/AP

DeSantis’s criminal justice record in Florida scrutinized amid Trump criticism

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Supporters of the top two contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are attacking their opponent’s records on criminal justice reform as the party emphasizes its law-and-order credentials.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has targeted former President Donald Trump for signing the 2018 First Step Act, which critics viewed as too lenient on criminal offenders. But DeSantis signed a Florida bill into law that loosened the felony thresholds for some serious crimes.

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DeSantis signed H.B. 7125 into law in June 2019, which specifically doubled the felony threshold for trafficking hydrocodone from 14 to 28 grams to “align with similar controlled substances.” The law did not change the minimum sentencing requirement for felony hydrocodone trafficking: three years and a $50,000 fine.

“The bill raises the base threshold amount for trafficking in hydrocodone from 14 grams to 28 grams,” the Florida Senate’s analysis of the bill reads. “Looking at the sample hydrocodone pill examined by OPPAGA, the new threshold requires 44 pills containing 10 mg. of hydrocodone to reach a trafficking amount. This threshold is more aligned with the pill count threshold for oxycodone, which requires 54 sample pills containing 30 mg. of oxycodone.”

According to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the law does appear to have marginally reduced the appearance of hydrocodone in overdose deaths, with hydrocodone being found present in 1.3% of all overdoses in 2020 compared to 1.9% in 2019. However, the drug was deemed the cause of 5% more overdose deaths in 2020 compared to the year prior.

The state has not published full hydrocodone overdose statistics for any period after June 2021, but the first six months of that year saw both hydrocodone occurrences and causes of death remain constant compared to the first six months of 2020.

The DeSantis campaign did not specifically say if the governor stands by the new felony threshold set by H.B. 7125, but a campaign official did tell the Washington Examiner that DeSantis and Florida Republicans were criticized over H.B. 7125 because it did not retroactively apply the reforms and lead to early releases for offenders, as the Trump-signed First Step Act did.

The hydrocodone reform included in H.B. 7125 had not received past media coverage, though other provisions within the bill, like raising the threshold for third-degree felony retail theft from $300 to $750, were praised by criminal justice reform advocacy groups.

Robert Rooks, the co-founder and then-vice president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, heralded the bill as “a new, more effective approach to public safety by enacting justice reforms that align the priorities of crime victims, the safety of all Floridians, and justice.

“Crime survivors support prioritizing rehabilitation over wasteful incarceration, because they understand it is key to interrupting the cycle of crime,” Rooks wrote. “All of these reforms are essential to making our safety system more accountable, flexible, and effective while being more supportive of crime victims. That’s why over 400 crime survivors from across the state voiced their support for the bill becoming law in a letter to state leaders. They strongly support reducing wasteful spending on incarceration in order to have a more effective approach to reducing crime.”

Crime and criminal justice reform remain top issues for both Republicans and Democrats heading into the 2024 general election, so much so that DeSantis began criticizing Trump for the First Step Act just days after the Florida governor formally launched his 2024 presidential campaign.

At the time of its passage, the bipartisan proposal, which aimed to reduce recidivism, saw more than 3,000 prisoners released from federal prison and sentence reductions for an additional 2,000 prisoners. DeSantis originally voted for an earlier version of the First Step Act but did not vote for its final passage, as he had already resigned from the House of Representatives while campaigning for governor.

DeSantis said on Friday that, if elected president, he would seek to repeal Trump’s law.

“Under the Trump administration, he enacted a bill, basically a jailbreak bill, it’s called the First Step Act. It has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now re-offended, and really, really hurt a number of people,” the Florida governor told the Daily Wire. “So one of the things I would want to do as president is go to Congress and seek the repeal of the First Step Act. If you are in jail, you should serve your time. And the idea that they’re releasing people who have not been rehabilitated early, so that they can prey on people in our society is a huge, huge mistake.”

DeSantis has taken significant measures to increase penalties for the trafficking of fentanyl, the most prevalent drug found in Florida overdoses.

In May 2022, he signed H.B. 95 into law, which raises the minimum sentencing requirement for fentanyl trafficking from three years to seven years for 4-14 grams, and from 15 to 20 years for 14-28 grams. The law did not alter the hydrocodone reform included in H.B. 7125.

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“Floridians of all walks of life have witnessed the destruction caused by the opioid epidemic across our state,” he said in a statement at the time. “While the Biden administration has failed to stop the flow of dangerous drugs, including fentanyl, across our southern border, we are taking action in Florida to lower both the demand and the supply of illicit and illegal drugs.”

DeSantis also signed a bill into law in May 2023 that strengthened the pre-trial detention code and pushed back against bail reform efforts.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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