TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ron DeSantis cast a surprise veto Tuesday as he defeated a popular criminal justice reform bill that received overwhelming bipartisan support in the state Legislature.
The move amplified his efforts to move to the right of former President Donald Trump on a variety of issues, including crime prevention.
Criminal justice has become a hot topic in the 2024 presidential campaign in recent weeks. Last month, DeSantis told conservative pundit Ben Shapiro that, if elected to the White House, he would try to repeal Trump’s First Step Act, a law intended to reduce recidivism rates.
The DeSantis campaign has also tried to highlight his hardline approach to fighting crime by taking a trip to san francisco to showcase the Democratic stronghold’s fights against crime, and this week said it would use «deadly force» against suspected drug traffickers trying to break through barriers at the southern border.
DeSantis voted for an early version of the First Step Act as a member of Congress, but during his time as governor and now as a presidential candidate, he honed a message much more in line with hardline conservatives who have generally opposed the policies. who could be perceived as soft on crime.
The latest example came Tuesday night when he vetoed legislation that would allow adults to expunge their criminal records, even if they previously had their records expunged as minors, which is not allowed under current Florida law. The proposal, HB 605it would open the opportunity only to people who had their charges dropped, were found not guilty, or were arrested but ultimately not charged.
The bill was sponsored in the Florida House by Republican state Rep. David Smith, who endorsed DeSantis’ presidential bid. He said that he is «disappointed.»
«They gave me no reason for the veto,» Smith told NBC News. “However, your senior staff have expressed to me their willingness to work on the language of the bill before the 2024 legislative session with the expectation that it could become law next time. year.»
He said he is not reconsidering his presidential endorsement of DeSantis because of the veto, even though it is the second time the governor has vetoed a criminal justice reform bill. The other was a 2021 bill that proposed allowing expungement of juvenile records for those who went through a diversion program.
A year later, DeSantis signed a version of the bill that did not include «serious crimes.»
Criminal justice groups that supported the bill were surprised because it passed with unanimous support in the Florida Senate and only two «no» votes in the Florida House of Representatives.
“The removal is not a ‘soft on crime’ policy,” said Christian Minor, a Florida lobbyist who was directly involved in promoting the bill’s passage. “It would have given Floridians who have never been convicted of a crime the opportunity to expunge their records and go on to lead successful lives and become tax-paying citizens.”
In a departure from the norm, DeSantis offered no explanation in his veto message Tuesday night. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
However, some of the governor’s advisers said the move was consistent with the message he wants to send as a tough-on-crime presidential candidate.
“Gov. DeSantis has always been a leader of law and order. While he means well, he seems concerned about ratifying a more lenient view on criminal records,” said an adviser familiar with his thinking.
“The point of view of the California attorney and Soros is not what he wants for Florida,” the person added, referring to liberal billionaire George Soros, who has been endorsing progressive prosecutors in elections across the country.
Another DeSantis supporter said signing the bill into law could have sent mixed signals and opened him up «to criticism since he has been openly against Trump’s First Step Act.»
In May, DeSantis signed legislation allowing the death penalty for child molesters, a move that was part of a broader criminal justice reform package approved by Republican lawmakers at his behest. He also reduced the number of jurors needed to recommend the death penalty, from 12 to eight.
As the 2024 presidential candidate, Trump has had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the reforms he implemented while in office.
In an interview last weekFox News’ Bret Baier mentioned the First Step Law. The former president pointed, as he has in the past, to a woman named Alice Johnson. As president, Trump granted her clemency and early release after she was convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.
Baier pressed Trump on the fact that Johnson could be killed under a proposal that has now been tabled to make drug dealers eligible for the death penalty.
Trump seemed confused about the details of his current plan and then simply concluded that Johnson «would not have committed» that crime because extending the death penalty to drug dealers would be a deterrent.
A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Former Florida Republican state senator Jeff Brandes, who focused much of his efforts on prison reform while in the Legislature, said Florida-based criminal justice reformers have struggled to agree with DeSantis for years.
“The criminal justice community struggled to find hope, but they persevered because this issue affects their friends, family and loved ones,” he said. “Florida still has more than 12,000 clemency cases pending, the National Guard still patrols our understaffed prisons, and Florida has yet to adopt policies that reduce inmate idleness or provide second chances.”
«We pray daily that God will soften his heart and show him that justice must be tempered by mercy,» he added of DeSantis.
Jenna Bottler, president and CEO of the Justice Action Network, the nation’s largest group working on bipartisan criminal justice reform, says that since announcing her presidential run, she has seen a change in DeSantis, who had previously signed some policies she supported.
“Before launching his presidential campaign, Governor Ron DeSantis and overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the Florida Legislature sided with the Republican Party and red states across the country: They saw a criminal justice system that failed to effectively protect the public safety, all while failing to use taxpayer dollars wisely,” he said.
«Unfortunately, just in the last few weeks, we have seen rhetoric outside of the campaign that is out of step with Republican voters and Governor DeSantis’ own record on these issues,» he added.