A More Just America

by Rand Paul
Bold reforms are needed for our criminal-justice and education systems.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following remarks were delivered before the Urban League on Friday, July 25.

I would like to thank the Urban League, and specifically Marc Morial and Donna Jones Baker, for your hospitality and warm reception.

All Clyde Kennard wanted was an education, but being black in Mississippi in the 1950s, nothing came easy. Instead of getting into college, Clyde got into trouble. Clyde was released from prison a few months after I was born. He was imprisoned for the crime of wanting an education.

The first time he tried to enroll at Mississippi Southern, the police planted liquor on him, jailed and fined him $600.

After his second attempt to enroll at Mississippi Southern, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of stealing $25 of chicken feed from his repossessed farm.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison — seven years! — for a crime that he didn’t commit.

A man of lesser courage or character would have been bitter. Kennard responded from a higher plane. He wrote: “We have no desire for revenge in our hearts. What we want is to be respected as men and women, given an opportunity to compete with you in the great and interesting race of life.”

Clyde Kennard did not live to see the triumphs of the civil-rights era. But when I think of Clyde Kennard, I am reminded of the challenges we still have with criminal injustices in America, and I am encouraged to keep talking and working toward solutions.

Three out of four people in prison for non-violent crimes are black or brown. Our prisons are bursting with young men of color, and our communities full of broken families. Yet, studies show that whites use illegal drugs at least as much as African Americans and Hispanics.

Why are so many young men of color incarcerated?

Because, frankly, it is easier to arrest and convict poor kids in urban environments. The problem is compounded when federal grants are issued based on conviction rates.

A new study shows that from 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million.

There is a cycle of poverty that often leads from drugs to debt and to prison. In prison, child support can accumulate into the thousands of dollars. Release from prison finds that employers don’t want to hire a convicted felon. With few options of real work, the cycle begins again.

Enough is enough. I will not sit idly by and watch our criminal-justice system continue to consume, confine, and define our young men.

I say we take a stand — and fight for justice now!

As a Christian, I believe in redemption and I believe in second chances.

I agree with the president’s commutation of sentences for people still trapped in prison for crack cocaine. Although the disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine is now less glaring, we should free those sentenced under the old guidelines.

In addition, today I’m announcing legislation that eliminates any disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

We must go a step further. We should give judges the discretion to find just sentences. Mandatory minimums have been used to incarcerate non-violent drug users for decades. One young man, Weldon Angelos, was given 55 years in prison for selling marijuana.

I say it’s time we restore sanity to sentencing by ending mandatory minimums, now!

To find justice, we must rethink our approach to the entire war on drugs.

Cory Booker and I have come up with one solution — legislation that expunges non-violent felonies from a person’s record. One of the biggest impediments to employment is checking the box that you are a convicted felon. I have a bill that reclassifies many of these non-violent felonies as misdemeanors.

In President Obama’s election, a higher percentage of black voters voted than white voters. This is a testament to how far we’ve come. Obstacles to voting, though, still exist. Probably the biggest obstacle is having a felony record. In my state, once convicted of a felony, you never get your voting rights back.

Nationwide, 5 million people are prevented from voting because of their criminal record. I want more people to vote, not less!

I support the reauthorization of the 1964 Voting Rights Act because, despite our progress, there are Clyde Kennards today who cannot fully access the franchise because they are handicapped by our educational and judicial systems.

Not only do I support the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, I am a Republican who wants to restore a role for the federal government in the Voting Rights Act.

I am a committed and determined advocate of the  14th Amendment: That states unequivocally, “No state shall deny equal protection or due process. No state shall deny the natural rights of anyone.” The Bill of Rights protects you from abusive government at federal and state level.

I testified this year before the Kentucky state legislature for restoration of voting rights. I have also introduced federal legislation to restore federal voting rights once people have completed their sentence.

Those who have known injustice should be at the vanguard of the fight to protect our civil liberties. If you are a member of a group that has ever felt the sting of injustice, your voice should be loud and clear.

Tragically, Congress passed legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of an American citizen without trial. In debate on the Senate floor, I asked a fellow senator, “Does this mean an American citizen could be detained and sent to Guantanamo Bay forever?” He responded, “Yes, if they’re dangerous.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I responded, “Sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? Who gets to decide who’s dangerous?”

Anybody remember Richard Jewell?

They said Richard Jewell was the Olympic bomber. He was convicted on television within hours. The only problem was — he didn’t do it.

But ponder for a moment what might have happened to Richard Jewell had he been a black man in the South in 1920. He might not have lived out the day.

Martin Luther King understood that injustice can be visited upon any kind of minority, not just a racial minority.

Dr. King wrote of injustice from the Birmingham jail. He wrote that an unjust law is a law that is made binding on a minority, but not on a majority.

Our nation has come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement. But we must realize that race still plays a role in the enforcement of the law.

Just ask Raliek, Daequon, and Wan’Tauhjs, who were just standing on a street corner when a policeman arrived and told them to move on or be arrested.

What was their crime?

I guess it was: “waiting while black”

The boys explained that they were waiting for a school bus to take them to their game. They were handcuffed and taken to jail.

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice is just not paying close enough attention.

Whether you are a minority because of the color of your skin or by virtue of your political or religious persuasion, it is imperative to restrain the power of the majority, to restrain the power of government.

Patrick Henry understood this when he wrote that the Constitution was intended to restrain the government, not the people.

The recent revelations that the government is collecting all of our phone records should give us pause, but particularly given the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired the world, but it also prompted the FBI to tap his phone and spy on tens of thousands of Americans.

Today all Americans should be concerned that the government is collecting the records of millions of Americans.

Frankly, I think what Americans do on their cellphone is none of the government’s damn business!

Malcolm X wrote: “Nobody can give you equality or justice. If you’re a man, you take it.”

I say the time has come for all of us to take and secure justice for all!

They say education is the great equalizer. But all schools are not equal. Many of the schools in our large cities are functioning with low standards. Many of the schools have become dropout factories. Some schools lack discipline and are unsafe.

The status quo is unacceptable, and Washington has no clue how to fix education. Washington has no clue who is a good teacher and who isn’t. We should allow innovation to occur at the local level.

I propose that we allow school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. Competition breeds excellence and encourages innovation — and boy do we need innovation.

My kids went to great public schools. I went to great public schools. The president’s kids go to great private schools. All Americans deserve the option of choosing the best school for their kids.

If we are to fix our criminal-justice system and fix our schools, we must also fix long-term unemployment and the cycle of poverty.

Detroit has nearly 20 percent unemployment, but so do many counties in rural Appalachia.

I propose we try something no one has really tried before. Let’s try a stimulus that works for all of us, that leaves more money in the local economy.

Let’s leave more money in Detroit; I’m not talking about sending money from Atlanta or Houston to bail out Detroit. I’m talking about leaving money that originates in Detroit in Detroit.

This stimulus would come from simply not sending the money to Washington. This stimulus would come by allowing money to stay at home.

The poverty problem is not new, nor will it easily go away. Black unemployment is still twice that of white unemployment. I have a ten-year plan to lower taxes and promote employment in areas of poverty. My plan would leave $1.3 billion in Detroit and over a billion dollars in Appalachia.

How is this different from a government stimulus? In the past, government chose who to give the money to, and since most small businesses fail, government often gave the money to the wrong people and no jobs were created.

In my plan, the government doesn’t choose who gets the money. The money will go to businesses that the local consumers have already chosen. The businesses that provide the most jobs will get the biggest reduction in taxes.

I believe my economic-freedom zones could transform the poverty problem in America.

Republicans are sometimes accused of being for no government. To point out the fallacy, I often joke that I’m for $3 trillion dollars’ worth of government. I’m for spending what comes in, but not for borrowing from China to pay our daily bills.

And if I had it my way, not one penny will be altered from the safety net before all corporate welfare is eliminated!

Last year we gave $20 billion in direct subsidies to big corporations. In fact, we gave the top 100 corporations in America an average of $200 million dollars each. In addition, we give around $20 billion in loans to big business.

For America to thrive again, for Americans to have meaningful jobs again, we need to consider ideas we haven’t considered before.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ve being trying the same thing over and over again in education, in combating poverty, in combating drugs. I say look to the horizon and consider that maybe we do need some fresh ideas to combat old and festering problems.

As a physician, I was trained to diagnose the problem and find a solution. As a legislator, I try to do the same thing.

I hope that each and every one of you will work with me to find solutions that aren’t hung up in partisan politics. And that together we might find a way to rise above the dysfunction that stifles Congress.

— Rand Paul represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate.

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