Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a potential presidential candidate in 2016, made a criminal justice reform-focused pitch to African-American voters at the National Urban League on Friday.
“Three out of four people in prison right now for nonviolent crimes are black or brown. Our prisons are bursting with young men of colour and our communities are full of broken families. Yet studies show that white kids use illegal drugs just as much,” Paul said.
Drug reform advocates argue these white drug users are more likely to use powdered cocaine and therefore face less prison time compared to crack cocaine users when they are caught. In a somewhat unusual move for a a pol looking at running in a Republican presidential primary, Paul embraced this argument and announced new legislation to address the disparity.
“Frankly it’s easier to arrest poor kids in urban environments,” Paul said. “The disparity though in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine is now less glaring than it used to be. But there’s still a disparity. We should free those sentenced under the old guidelines. In addition I want to go one step farther. Today I am announcing legislation that will be introduced today that eliminates any disparity between crack and powdered cocaine.”
Paul also touted his recent work with Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) to mitigate the longterm effects of felony convictions and other issues.
“I’m a Republican who wants to restore a federal role for the government in the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
At the same time, Paul connected his libertarian-oriented opposition to expansive government surveillance and indefinite detentions in Guantanamo Bay to the civil rights movement.
“You have to support the right to a trial by jury, the right to have a lawyer, because people are falsely accused. Who are the people that are falsely accused? People who are minorities. But you can be a minority because of the colour of your skin or the shade of your ideology. There are many ways you can be a minority. We have to be together to defend rights of all minorities,” he said.
Despite Paul’s embrace of progressive-sounding policies, the National Democratic Party didn’t seem particularly thrilled with Paul’s speech. Before his speech, the party blasted out a memo accusing Paul of lacking substance on issues important to people of colour.
“Despite claiming that there isn’t, ‘anybody in Congress doing more for minority rights than I am right now,’ Paul’s newfound ‘passion’ for civil rights seems to be little more than a crass political strategy to try to win votes,” the party said.
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