Rand Paul is playing with fire: The shockingly reasonable ideas that could doom him with Republicans

In 2013, Paul gave a disastrous speech at Howard University. Last week he returned to talk criminal justice reform

Published April 20, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Rand Paul                                (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rand Paul (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

When Rand Paul visited the Howard University in 2013, it would be an understatement to say it didn't go well.

Speaking at one of the oldest and most prestigious historically black colleges in America, Paul botched the name of the first popularly elected black senator in American history, defended unpopular voter ID laws, offered a revisionist version of the Republican Party’s role in black history, blatantly lied about a previous statement regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and assumed the audience didn’t know basics about the founding of the NAACP. The audience was skeptical beforehand and unimpressed afterward. Paul took a drubbing in the national media.

So it was that this past Thursday Rand Paul returned to Howard. This time around, he fared better. There were no major flubs and he received polite applause from the small crowd of about 150. The event was a two-panel criminal justice symposium moderated by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) as part of a lecture series. The first panel included Paul as well as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), and Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI). The second panel included Howard law professor Lisa Crooms, Howard student activist Anthony Driver, the Koch Institute’s Vikrant Reddy, Director of Howard’s Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center Elsie Scott, and myself.

In the first panel, Paul began by saying that he’s always been “skeptical” of the War on Drugs -- which, for all intents and purposes, appears to be true; he's on the record criticizing drug policy as far back as 2000. Although he credited reading Michelle Alexander’s "The New Jim Crow" for his awakening to the racial disparities of the drug war, “I always thought the War on Drugs was unfair," Paul said. As he has done in the past, Paul noted that three out of four people in prison are people of color. However, in terms of how those racial disparities came about, he said, “I don’t think it’s all racism,” suggesting that some of it might be “inadvertent.”

Paul also touched on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, referencing the Kalief Browder case detailed last year in The New Yorker: In 2010, a 16-year-old Browder was arrested for stealing a backpack, a crime he'd been accused of by a stranger. He was incarcerated for nearly three years without ever getting a trial. (He was eventually released in 2013, and is now suing the NYPD, the Bronx District Attorney, and New York City Department of Corrections.) Despite being just a teenager, Browder spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement. Recounting the story, Paul said, “That shouldn’t happen in America.”

The Kentucky senator voiced support for the idea of making some felonies into misdemeanors, citing California’s success with Proposition 47. Prop 47, a ballot initiative passed by voters last November, has reduced certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors and allowed for the resentencing of current inmates. It resulted in the release of 2,700 inmates and, as Paul noted, it has freed up space in California’s overcrowded prison system. It’s a promising way to start ending the War on Drugs.

Addressing other drug war-era legislation, Paul talked about civil asset forfeiture: Last year, the senator introduced FAIR (the Fifth Amendment Restoration Act) in an effort to curb the process, by which the government can seize property suspected of being involved in a crime without needing sufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges. At Howard, he expressed optimism that the legislation would move forward.

I never thought I would agree with Rand Paul on anything. I have always been very liberal, but I agree with the conservative junior senator from Kentucky when it comes to criminal justice issues. I’m just coming at the issue from a very different background: A few years ago, I served time in prison for a drug crime and after my release became a prison activist and journalist. Clearly, Paul has never been in prison, but he’s won the begrudging respect of this liberal ex-con by addressing criminal justice reform with meaningful legislation.

Of course, when policies play well with liberals, it raises the question of how the Republican base will react to those policies in the primaries – and whether Paul will actually stick with these issues at the risk of losing that base so far before the general election. Although backing away from such topics may appear a more prudent primary campaign approach, that doesn’t seem like much of an option at this point, seeing as he’s got his name on a few pieces of pending legislation.

Along with Booker, Paul is sponsoring the REDEEM Act, which would create a path for sealing criminal records, allow for the possible expungement of juvenile records, offer incentives for state to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, eliminate lifetime food stamp and welfare bans for nonviolent drug offenders, and improve the accuracy of FBI background checks.

Earlier this year, Paul teamed up with Booker and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) to announce legislation that would end the federal government’s prosecution of medical marijuana users in states where it is legal. Back in 2013, Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) cosponsored the Justice Safety Valve Act which would allow judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum for federal crimes.

Although he is the only Republican sponsor on all three of the above bills, Paul isn’t the only conservative voicing support for reforming the justice system: Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and even the billionaire Koch brothers have all touted criminal justice reform in recent years. Gingrich, Bush, and Perry have all spoken about the need to reduce prison populations, which is progress with an obvious financial incentive. The Koch brothers have advocated for better public defender funding and restoring rights to youthful offenders. Like the libertarian Kochs, Paul’s reform efforts are clearly broader than simply decarcerating. But will those efforts resonate with the Republican base?

Interestingly, that’s a question that even Paul himself hasn’t really answered well. Last year, on Bill Maher’s show, he deftly avoided answering when the host asked what other Republicans would think of felony expungement, which is one of the provisions of the REDEEM Act. More recently, Paul made headlines when he walked away, seemingly mid-interview, after a Guardian reporter asked him about how his focus on racial imbalance in the criminal justice system would play with a conservative base.

(Earlier this year, I wrote an article for The Washington Post about racial imbalance in the criminal justice system, and if the reactions of the conservatives I know are in any way indicative, I’m going to guess that topic still won’t go over well with the base.)

In fact, there are a number of provisions of REDEEM that seem unlikely to play well with Republican voters – but that might just be a testament to the sincerity of Paul’s beliefs. When a Republican starts propsing forward-thinking changes generally associated with Democrats, it’s easy to question the motives. Is this something Paul really believes in, or is he just trying to broaden his appeal? The fact that it won’t help him with the base seems to imply the former. Since he’s not a shoe-in for the Republican nomination, that base matters here.

Whether or not Paul is able to garner the base support he needs to get past the primaries, it is my hope that he can at least make criminal justice reform into a major election issue. Personally, despite his views on the drug war, I still won’t say that “I Stand with Rand.” But, when he’s talking about criminal justice reform, I’d at least be willing to loiter in the general vicinity.

By Keri Blakinger

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