Rand Paul Focuses on Criminal Justice Reform in Speech at Howard University

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) continued to spread his unique conservative message to a broader audience by speaking yesterday at Howard University, a school that Republican politicians typically avoid.

During the speech, Paul focused on minority rights, individual empowerment and the dangers of big government. Paul also highlighted the need for criminal justice reform and the unfairness of nation’s drug laws to Americans from all walks of life.

The focus on criminal justice reform has been gaining steam through the Right on Crime initiative in various state legislatures, including Texas, where reform has saved taxpayers $2 billion. In his speech at CPAC last month, Virginia Attorney Ken Cuccinelli challenged the “tough on crime” approach that conservatives had taken in the past and urged them to lead the way in “changing the culture of corrections in America.”

The approach taken by Paul, who has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to reform federal mandatory minimums, is intriguing given that his speech was at a historically black college to an audience that has been disproportionately affected by the country’s drug laws.

“But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point,” said Paul. “They are unfair to everyone, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences. Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them.”

“We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence,” he added. “That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences. We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.”

The focus on criminal justice reform and the unfairness of the nation’s drug laws has worred some on the Left. At the end of last month, Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress expressed worry and frustration that Paul’s message on the issue could hurt undermine them.

“[I]f Democrats cede this issue to the likes of Rand Paul, they will give up a powerful opportunity to engage with young voters — and potentially empower one of America’s most dangerous politicians in the process,” wrote Millhiser. “But if Democrats cannot be moved to think sensibly on drugs because it is the right thing to do, the least they could do is think sensibly on drugs because it is in their selfish political interests to do so.”

The Left may be worried about the narrative change — that it’s now conservative Republicans who are preaching criminal justice reform and the problems with the nation’s drug laws — but for Paul and others it’s a matter of principle more than anything. Harsh punishments for people who victimless mistakes is just not right and it’s well past time that we change what has been the pervasive legal culture in the United States for decades.

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