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Why Marco Rubio voted against a bipartisan criminal justice bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate

Rubio was one of just 12 no votes for the First Step Act. He explained his decision on Fox News radio.
Sen. Marco Rubio. [PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS | AP]
Published Dec. 19, 2018
Updated Dec. 19, 2018

Sen. Marco Rubio was one of just 12 Senators to vote against the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Tuesday night.

The bill, backed by the White House and a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, would retroactively reduce the disparity in prison sentences for people arrested for crack vs cocaine, gives judges more discretion at sentencing and eases the so-called "three strike rule" so repeat offenders are guaranteed 25 years of prison, not life.

It also included more money for post-prison rehabilitation programs and halfway houses, and to study methods for reducing recidivism rates.

Advocates for the bill, mainly criminal justice reform groups, lobbied hard for Rubio's support. But in a brief statement Tuesday night, Rubio vaguely said the bill "did not address serious concerns raised by local law enforcement, federal prosecutors and constituents in Florida about the sentencing reforms in this bill."

"As I've said before, reforms to our criminal justice system are needed because 95 percent of federal inmates will be released at some point," he added. "Preparing them to integrate into society and find meaningful work is in our best interests, but we must always err on the side of public safety."

He elaborated his opposition somewhat on Fox News radio yesterday. Here's what he said:

"Let me just tell you that I think everyone is in favor of the first part of that bill which I've long supported as a separate bill and that is the idea that if someone is going to get out of jail anyway, they're scheduled to be out of jail in 10 years, 5 years or 15 years it behooves us, it's in our interest, to make sure that those people have training and those people have skills acquisition and the kinds of things that you need in order to be successful so you don't go back to jail. The second part of it is what's troubling and that is the incentive that they want to use to get these people to take these services is a reduction on the back end, a credit time, credit for the back end where they're able to serve part of the sentence in a halfway house or even in non-detention home probation. Whatever it might be. And then on the front end also reducing some mandatory sentences for certain cases. That's the part that I get nervous about because ultimately you're talking about some very bad people that have done some horrible things. We have to be very careful when we start walking in that direction. I think mandatory minimum sentences can sometimes have impacts that you look at it and say aren't fair, but we also have to recognize mandatory and minimum sentences have taken really terrible human beings off the streets for long periods of time. The best way to prevent a criminal from committing another crime is to not let them get out there…I'm not sure given the Amendments that are out there that they could ever get to the point where I'm 100% confident. I don't understand why we didn't just do this for a small select group of crimes and start from there and build it up as oppose to the reverse, but they've decided to take a huge bite of the apple. If I'm uncomfortable in the end I'm going to air on the side of public safety and vote against it."

MORE: Why is a Florida for-profit prison company backing bipartisan criminal justice reform?

'A horrifying injustice': Rubio calls for Groveland Four pardons

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