Video: The Inside Story of How the First Step Act Was Passed—Doug Deason
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we sit down with Doug Deason, a conservative activist and donor as well the founder of the Deason Foundation, to discuss his work advocating for criminal justice reform, and the inside story of how the First Step Act passed.
Jan Jekielek: I’m here with Doug Deason, president of the Deason Foundation. You described yourself as a donor activist, a rare breed, so to speak.
Doug Deason: That’s right. There are a lot of donors, a lot of political donors, a lot of charitable donors, but there aren’t that many who follow their money. We like to know where our dollars go and be involved. The different programs; criminal justice reform, education reform, or promoting free enterprise are the primary areas that we work in. We know where our dollars go, and then we’re involved in the C-3’s and C-4’s that do the work.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of activism, you were instrumental in helping move along this First Step Act that President Trump also championed. Tell me about that process a little bit.
Mr. Deason: First, I would say that to me, there’s only one person, maybe two, who can actually take credit and say, we did this. That would be obviously, President Trump, and then Jared [Kushner]. Now there are 40 or 50 people, who had it not been for them, this wouldn’t have happened. I would be one, and certainly Mike Lee, Van Jones—several people on the left—Alice Marie Johnson and Kim Kardashian. So a really diverse group of people who, [had not been for them], this wouldn’t have happened, as well as Brooke Rollins, who ended up in the White House.
It wouldn’t have happened without the team that we put together, because when the bill hit the Senate, it was dead on arrival, according to Mitch McConnell. So we mounted a campaign at home led by Kelley Paul, Rand Paul’s wife. She did a wonderful job. She was the good person, and then we had some people who played bad guys attacking Mitch McConnell at home.
We spent some money there and put pressure on him, but it really took the president. The president called him and said, “I want that bill on the floor.” And that’s ultimately what got it there.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s remind everyone, what it actually did? What did it change?
Mr. Deason: The First Step Act, what was interesting about it was that it didn’t do anything new that hadn’t already been done in the states, mainly Texas, but other states as well, but had not been done by the federal government. It passed the House with Doug Collins at the time—Congressman Doug Collins is the author—and it reformed the prison system and prison reentry, but it did not reform sentencing.
If you remember, this current president was the author of the Clinton crime bill in 1994 [Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994]. If you look at it, no two people in recent history have put more black men in prison than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That’s just a fact. I hope that they’re changing their ways. I have some reason for optimism that they’re going to continue with some of the things that President Trump had done on criminal justice reform, but I don’t have a lot of hope there.
There was sentencing reform going back to the 1994 crime bill, where they had the three strikes, you’re out. That’s three strikes, so you could have broken a state law or a federal law, and so it was pretty easy to hit that three strikes. Three strikes, it was essentially life in prison. So we ended up adding quite a bit of sentencing reform to the bill as well.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve had Alice Marie Johnson on the show before and Brooke Rollins on the show. I don’t think we actually talked about criminal justice reform, but some of these original policy ideas came out of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and in the work that they did. Tell me the philosophy here. It’s really a change in approach and then the policy is based on that. Tell me about the philosophy behind it.
Mr. Deason: I’m on the board of Texas Public Policy Foundation and we have a group called Right on Crime. With Right on Crime, we’re the largest right-leaning criminal justice reform advocacy group in the country by far. We work in 32 states. We actually just picked up our seventh country, Uruguay. We work with other countries as well to help advance everything, soup to nuts, from sentencing reform, prison reform, reentry reform, because 80 percent of people who go to prison are either addicted—they have an addiction issue, alcohol or drugs—or mental health issues, and so there’s so much we can do before they ever get there.
What we’ve done in Texas are diversion programs. We’re able to get some of that set up in the federal system and we have a lot of work to do there yet. If you can divert someone out of the system before they ever get there, and then if they could complete—if it’s drug addiction—a drug addiction therapy program, then charges are dropped and they never enter the system. Most people will see the light and stop abusing drugs at that point. Not everyone, but a good percentage of people.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a very interesting development. The idea is to not penalize people for lighter crimes to the extent that they were before in the previous rules, and also keep as many people out of the system, as you said. I’m speaking as a Canadian. Just looking in from the outside, there’s a really large number of people in the system.
Mr. Deason: The best statistics are that we have 5 percent of the world population and 25 percent of the incarcerated population. It’s absurd. We have more prisoners by far than Russia. And depending on how you look at prisoners in North Korea, we’re one of the most heavily incarcerated countries in the world, obviously.
It’s called a correctional system. What’s so odd about it is there’s nothing correctional about our correctional system—it has not been traditionally in the states or at the federal level. About 10 percent, a little under 10 percent of prisoners are in the federal system. The answer, always, from the Bureau of Prisons or the Department of Justice is that we only have 8 or 9 percent of the prisoners, so we’re not really the issue.
If you’re a state, you’d be the most incarcerated state, because no other state has that many prisoners. California has the most. Texas, we’re in the top ten but we’ve made a lot of progress.
In the House and the Senate, as we made the rounds selling this bill to Republicans and Democrats, the question would be, “How do we know this will work?” What do you need? We’ve got it, we’ve got all the proof. I can send you this study, that study, a copy of the bill that became law in Texas that worked.
Mr. Jekielek: You have this proof of concept from the state that you can actually apply. It’s super interesting. At this point, with this Congress, and with this administration, how can the work of the First Step Act, which is just a first step, as everyone tells me and I know, be taken further?
Mr. Deason: Number one, it has to be fully implemented. I was in the Oval Office with the president when he signed that bill, it was December 21, 2018, right before Christmas of 2018. We spent the next two years just trying to make sure that it was implemented because it’s hard to get a big tugboat like the federal government, the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice, to change course. It was hard, and we had to file lawsuits, and we had to put a lot of pressure where we could, and luckily, we had a lot of support from the Senate and the House.
Then the second step would be more sentencing reform, most importantly, because we still have so many people [in prison], and making them retroactive. We have so many people who are in prison right now at the federal level, this only applies to the federal level, but it’s been imitated in quite a few states, some version of it, like Florida had their First Step Act. It was a start, they’ve got a lot of work to do.
People who broke laws or were sentenced under guidelines that are no longer in effect, are still sitting in prison, maybe for the rest of their lives if we’re not able to make that retroactive, unless they get clemency from the president.
Mr. Jekielek: Where is your activism heading now?
Mr. Deason: I look at the federal level as a distraction. It was great, I’m glad we got it done, but again, over 90 percent of the prisoners are in states. In Texas, we still have a lot of work we can do, so we’re working hard on reforming our bail system and our pre-trial system right now. Some states have already done what we’re trying to do. Once we get it done, then try to take that to other states.
I’m on an advisory panel or commission to Governor DeSantis here in Florida and we’ve got a lot of work to do there. Our champion in the House, Byron Donalds, fortunately, we supported him, he’s now Congressman Byron Donalds. He’s great. So we’ve got to find more champions in the House. The Senate in Florida is a lot better. Senator Jeff Brandes is the big champion in the Senate, and there are other good champions for criminal justice reform.
Mr. Jekielek: I just had Byron Donalds here in your seat moments ago. That’s excellent. I’ll offer a little bit of my take. I think that doing it at the federal level raised awareness across the country and it was one of these rare areas of somewhat bipartisanship under the previous administration.
Mr. Deason: It was really interesting. They always call it, sausage making. I had seen it, obviously, at the state level, mostly in Texas, but I’ve seen it in Kentucky with Matt Bevin and Indiana with Governor Pence—when he was governor, we helped him with some things—Governor Ducey in Arizona.
But at the federal level, it’s a whole different level. You really don’t want to see what goes into the federal sausage. Part of the problem is nobody really ever sees it, not even the senators. They don’t know what they’re voting on. Many times, they get a bill that they’ve never seen the final version of, and that’s why they have to go back in and clean them up afterward because people are sliding in bridges to nowhere, and little items that have maybe nothing to do really with the bill at all. They get slid in and nobody catches it, because it’s just gone literally door to door being amended.
That’s what frustrates senators like Tom Cotton. I’m a big Tom Cotton fan. He’s not a big fan of criminal justice reform. He’s been painted as an enemy, and I don’t believe that he is. He’s just a very logical, intelligent person and he wants to know what he’s voting for.
When the First Step Act came out, I came to D.C. the week before the vote, I texted him and he called me, and so I set up a meeting. He said, “Send me the bill.” So I say, “No problem.” So I called Brooke Rollins in the White House and I said, “Brooke, we got to get Tom Cotton the bill. He and his counselor will go over it. We’re going to meet on Monday.” She said, “No problem, we’ll get him a copy.”
All weekend, nothing. Sunday, I got into town and I called her. I said, “Do we have it?” She goes, “No.” Monday morning, I called her, “Are we going to be able to it?” “No.” So I texted him and I said, “I don’t have the bill.” He goes, “I know you don’t, there was no way you’re going to get it.” He said, “Come on over.” So I went over, and we talked hypothetically, as he said, because you don’t know if what we’re talking about is really going to be in the bill. So he voted against it. I appreciated enough of what he did to not talk trash about it.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. You just gave us a little bit of an insight into the federal sausage making, as you call it. Doug Deason, any final thoughts?
Mr. Deason: I’m so excited that ACU [American Conservative Union] is putting a focus on criminal justice reform. A lot of the conservative groups, Turning Point USA, obviously, Charlie Kirk has put a big emphasis on it. Candace Owens has really focused on it with Blexit and her efforts. It’s become a popular subject and it’s heartwarming to see that.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Deason: Thanks, Jan. I appreciate it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.