The Long Step Back for Law and Order | Opinion

Troy Pine lay bleeding on the sidewalk outside the neon-lit Nara Lounge as sirens drew near. His assailant, Joel Francisco, had recently sprung from prison on the wings of a new crime reform bill. Now he was on the run for stabbing the 46-year-old carpenter.

Before his latest lockup, Francisco was an Almighty Latin Kings leader. He received life in prison for a drug offense in 2005. Francisco had also shot a man "execution style" for "disrespecting" his gang affiliation and pled no contest in 1997. Upon his arrest for the drug offense years later, he attempted to bribe officers with $200,000 for his release.

Had Francisco known a jailbreak bill was around the corner, he might have stayed the offer.

Within a few months of his early release in 2019, Francisco committed a series of probation violations and crimes, was charged in an alleged Latin King drug trafficking conspiracy and stabbed Pine on October 2, 2019.

Pine succumbed to his wounds on the night Francisco attacked him. "Some criminals deserve to spend their lives incarcerated," said Commander Thomas Verdi, the Providence Police Department's deputy chief. "Joel is one."

Francisco's get-out-of-jail-free card came from an unexpected place: the First Step Act (FSA), a crime reform law signed by President Donald Trump in 2018.

"Trump never really wanted criminal justice reform, according to people who have discussed the subject with him privately," Axios recently reported. The president now appears to acknowledge the political error of indulging, against his instincts, progressive crooning in his administration. Key personnel involved in the creation of the FSA were Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and domestic policy advisors Brooke Rollins and Ja'Ron Smith.

The administration sold the bill to the public as federal sentencing relief for model prisoners, primarily those incarcerated for minor drug-related offenses. "First Step, at its core," Rollins wrote in December 2018, hailing the bill's passage, "is the beginning of a transformation of America's federal criminal justice system into what it should have always been: a system that makes America safer." Smith assured the public at the same time that the law "would only focus on individuals who are non-violent offenders."

Most Americans did not know that the bill had quietly transformed into far more than mere sentencing reform. But some tried to sound the alarm.

The National Sheriffs' Association, Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs of America worked on the bill from start to finish with the White House. In the end, they opposed the legislation. They warned in a press release that the FSA "amounts to a social experiment with the safety of our communities and the lives of sheriffs, deputies and police officers in the balance."

Though their concerns went unheeded, their fears would be validated.

By July 2019, of the 2,243 inmates released, only 960 were incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Data obtained exclusively by Tucker Carlson Tonight revealed that 496 were in prison for weapons and explosives-related crimes, 239 for sex offenses, 178 for fraud, bribery and extortion, 118 for burglary and larceny, 106 for robbery, 59 for homicide and aggravated assault, 46 for immigration-related offenses, nine for counterfeiting and embezzlement, and two for national security reasons.

As it turned out, dangerous criminals benefited from the law's provisions.

Like Joel Francisco, Troy Powell received 20 years for a 2004 drug offense. After the FSA set him loose from prison in 2019, he became the poster boy for the law's success. But Powell was rearrested this year for trafficking methamphetamine with a major North Carolina drug ring. With his newfound freedom, Powell contributed to the meth overdoses that have more than quadrupled from 2011 to 2017.

But the most dangerous aspect of the FSA is the precedent it sets at the federal level in keeping with a trend that is already wreaking havoc in the states.

President Donald Trump signing First Step Act
President Donald Trump signing First Step Act Win McNamee/Getty Images

In California, Assembly Bill 109 reduced the state's prison population by sentencing certain felony offenders to county jail instead. It also addressed the parolee recidivism problem by effectively eliminating parole supervision. If a parolee commits a crime, but there is no parole officer, is it a crime? This scheme comes at a high cost.

Two men, including a police officer, were brutally murdered by a gang member roaming free because of AB 109 in 2017. The gang member, Michael Mejia, had been arrested five times in seven months and, in every case, no charges were filed. Mejia never spent more than ten days behind bars for any offense. Despite his litany of crimes, in some states, Mejia wouldn't even be considered a recidivist.

"When most people think of recidivism, they think of someone continuing to do things over and over," Ron Welch told me. Welch is an assistant prosecuting attorney in Ohio. But the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), he said, "puts artificial filters on that definition."

"For example, if someone walks out of an Ohio prison and goes to another state and commits a crime and goes to prison, that would not count towards recidivism for purposes of ODRC's stats. But that's not all," Welch says. "Also, a person that gets out of prison and commits numerous misdemeanor crimes (assault, theft, domestic violence, etc.) [but] does not get sent back to prison, does not count as a recidivist."

That offenders do not return to prison is increasingly common.

The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund released a groundbreaking report this year on reform-minded district attorneys. These are people like the newly elected district attorney of San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, who believe, as he does, that "a district attorney can challenge the legitimacy of laws by declining to bring charges in certain cases."

Under these prosecutors, jurisdictions nationwide recently saw a 19 percent average decline in guilty verdicts or pleas, and a 20 percent increase in dropped or lost felony cases. In Dallas County, Texas—Rollins' home state—those numbers are 30 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Rollins often points to Texas as a prison and recidivism reform exemplar. Before joining the administration, she was president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). With Rollins as the conduit in the White House and with Kushner's help, TPPF effectively originated the FSA from its libertarian crime initiatives in the Lone Star State.

Under her leadership, TPPF helped create the reform that resulted in the state closing eight prisons since 2007. Texas is now in the precarious position of having fewer prisons and far fewer police officers at the same time that violent crime and murder have reached decade highs. Rape is at an all-time high and aggravated assault has soared. Nevertheless, Rollins is convinced that the Potemkin village of progress is real. She reportedly has big plans for crime reform during Trump's second term.

"There is a point in the history of a society," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, "when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things, it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly." In part, Trump won because he campaigned against this pathology, which afflicts the ruling class far more than the little people who live with the consequences of their social experiments. But he has allowed his administration to be guided by their febrile hands.

Millions of Americans staring down the midnight of lawlessness are desperate for a leader—they are not "Republicans" or "Democrats," but decent men and women united in fear and the hope for a safer future. Trump must now choose between them or the prophets of progress in his White House.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a contributor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.