Rand Paul: Misguided sentencing laws hurt black defendants

Sen. Rand Paul told his Senate colleagues Wednesday that the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws disproportionately affect the black community and need to be changed — putting the Kentucky Republican at the front of a push on Capitol Hill to move away from decades of punitive drug policies.

Mr. Paul is thought to be laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016 and has been busy making the case that his libertarian brand of Republicanism can broaden his party’s appeal with minority groups that turned out heavily for President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Paul’s remarks fell in line with several of his colleagues on the panel, who agreed that Congress should give judges more leeway in sentencing to reduce the size of the nation’s prison population and save taxpayers money.

“I’m here to ask you to create a safety valve for all federal mandatory minimums,” Mr. Paul said. “Each case should be judged on its own merits. Mandatory minimums prevent this from happening. Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives.”

In March, Mr. Paul and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the committee, introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would allow federal courts in certain situations to impose a sentence below a statutory minimum.

Sen. Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences,” Mr. Leahy said Wednesday.

In August, Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, Utah Republican, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which also would give judges more wiggle room in sentencing people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

“It is not clear that our country can continue to afford waging this war on drugs through a system that so directly and so inevitably involves these kinds of minimum mandatory sentences,” Mr. Lee said Wednesday. “There is, I think, an increasing consensus developing on the right and on the left that significant reforms to minimum mandatory penalties are in order.”

But Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, disagreed, saying that Congress should move in the opposite direction by adopting new mandatory sentences for financial crimes and child pornography possession. Mr. Grassley said that federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws have helped reduce crime as well as disparities in sentencing.

He also said mandatory sentences have grown in importance in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that he said undermined the Sentencing Reform Act that Congress passed on 1984, which established truth-in-sentencing laws and abolished parole.

“Under the current state of the law, if Congress, reflecting the will of the American people, is to have any effect on sentences imposed — protecting victims, deterring crime, punishing appropriately — mandatory minimum sentences are our only option,” he said.

Since the 2012 election that saw GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney capture just 6 percent of the black vote, Mr. Paul has made the case that Republicans can make inroads with minority communities by promoting school choice and reforming federal sentencing.

During a visit earlier this year to historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., Mr. Paul said that “we should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.”

Mr. Paul delivered a similar message in his testimony Wednesday, saying that “if I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago.”

“Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs,” he said.

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