- Associated Press - Thursday, July 24, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said Thursday that the disproportionate number of minorities in the nation’s prisons convinced him to push for sentencing reform and restoring voting rights to some convicted felons ahead of a possible presidential run in 2016.

However, the fact that there are a disproportionate number of minorities on death row in the U.S. has not led him to scrutinize capital punishment. He said the death penalty is a state issue.

“I haven’t had a lot of feedback specifically on that,” Paul told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I just haven’t taken a position on the death penalty.”

In the past two months, Paul has introduced a series of bills designed to reform the criminal justice system. The bills would abolish mandatory minimum sentences, restore voting rights to some convicted felons, help people expunge their criminal records and downgrade some felonies to misdemeanors. All the proposals would benefit minorities that Paul said have been impacted by the “war on drugs.”

“And even though whites used drugs at the same rate as black kids, the prisons are full of black kids and brown kids,” he said. “There are Republicans trying to correct this injustice.”

Similarly, more than half of the country’s current death row inmates are either black or Latino, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that advocates ending capital punishment. More than 270 black people have been executed for the murder of a white person, while 20 white people have been executed for the murder of a black person.

White people have accounted for more than half of all executions in the United States since 1976. Kentucky has executed three people since 1976 - all white males - but none since 2008. The state’s death penalty has been on hold since 2010 pending the outcome of a state lawsuit.

Paul said he did not know if the death penalty is an important issue to minority voters, whom he has been courting in recent months. In February, Paul pressed Republicans in the Kentucky Senate to pass a bill that would restore voting rights to some convicted felons. It ultimately failed.

Paul plans to talk about those issues in a speech Friday at the National Urban League’s annual conference in Cincinnati. He said his ideas have been well received in minority communities because “people are ready for something to happen.”

Paul isn’t the first Republican to seek to broaden the party’s base by reaching out to minority voters. The key, according to Eric McDaniel, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in black politics, is consistency.

“You have to have a history of doing this,” he said.

That’s one reason why some of Kentucky’s civil rights leaders have not bought into Paul’s message. Georgia Davis Powers, Kentucky’s first black state senator, wrote an editorial earlier this month saying the black community does not trust politicians who “shake our hands while spitting in our faces.”

“I call him the great pretender,” Powers said, pointing to Paul’s support of laws that require voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Opponents of the laws argue that they target fraud that doesn’t exist and disproportionately affect minorities, college students and other groups that generally vote Democratic.

Paul said it was “presumptuous of anyone to know what’s in another’s heart.”

“I don’t think there is anybody in Congress, Republican or Democrat, who has done more to advance minority rights and try to advance justice,” Paul said.

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