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Rand Paul, Cory Booker team up for bipartisan reform of criminal justice system

July 29, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
The political odd couple of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced new legislation in hopes of reforming the nation’s criminal justice system. They join Judy Woodruff to discuss why former prisoners should be given more opportunity to re-enter the workforce, the chances of this bill becoming law and the benefits of reaching across the aisle.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to try to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

Two freshman senators, a political odd couple, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, have introduced legislation called the REDEEM Act that would make it easier for juveniles who commit nonviolent crimes to expunge or seal those convictions from their records, lift the federal ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for low-level drug offenders, offer incentives to states that currently try juveniles as adults to encourage them to raise the age to 18, and ban solitary confinement for children, except in the most dangerous cases.

Senators Paul and Booker join me now.

We welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Senator Booker, what is it that you most want to change about the criminal justice system?

SEN. CORY BOOKER, D, N.J.: Well, overall, we have a system that costs taxpayers a quarter trillion dollars a year. We’re 4 to 5 percent of the globe’s population. We lock up 25 percent of the globe’s prison population.

And so what we really need is a broad-based transformation of criminal justice that actually saves taxpayer dollars, empowers people to succeed and keep our streets safe. And I have seen firsthand how a broken criminal justice system actually adds to criminality by making people who otherwise want to be able to do the right thing by shutting doors in their face and not giving them a chance to redeem themselves in society.

So, this is a large stretch. I joined the Senate at a time that Senator Rand Paul, Senator Leahy, Senator Durbin, Senator Mike Lee were doing a lot of things to try to change this system, and I am happy to join this broad-based effort on this urgent need in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Paul, you come from a very different political world view than Senator Booker, but you see this the same way he does?

SEN. RAND PAUL, R, Ky.: Well, I think the interesting is, I don’t think it’s a right or a left issue.

I think it’s an issue that we both believe strongly in. I think it’s the number one impediment or one of the chief impediments to unemployment. People can’t get a job because they have to check off a box saying they’re a felon. There are five million people who have lost the right to vote. There’s also five million people who are out of jail who have been convicted of felonies that I think it’s denying them an opportunity to get a job.

So, I want people to work. I want people to get back to work. I want them to get back to voting. And all of these things, I think, are wrapped up in what stuff that really both parties can believe and at least some people from both parties do believe in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Booker, how do you answer the argument — I guess this especially comes from conservatives — that this is something that should be handled at the state level and not by the federal government?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, we have federal laws that deal with these kinds of crimes. We have got to reform them.

And it’s the federal prison population as well as states that’s mushrooming. Look, the overall number of prisoners in the United States has gone up 10-fold since 1980 alone. So this is something we have to do at every level of government.

And in a lot of areas, I believe — in fact, Senator Rand Paul and I partnered on an amendment first to deal with pulling the federal government back in terms of the enforcement of marijuana laws in terms of medical marijuana. So, this is something we all have to work on.

And in terms of what I have seen on the federal government, this waste, this gross waste of billions of dollars on nonviolent drug offenders — remember, the majority of our criminals that we lock up are nonviolent offenders. And we have got to start figuring out ways to empower them to succeed.

And a lot of states actually, to give them credit, a lot of red states, in fact, are leading the way in lowering prison populations at the same time as lowering crime. The federal government has to lead, has to follow suit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Paul, based on what I’m reading, this is not given a serious chance of passage this year. What argument are you making to your colleagues? You know, I gather especially Republicans are not exactly excited about this idea.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, you know, I think there is a chance it could pass.

I have been talking with not only Senator Reid, but Senator Leahy and I are together on a mandatory minimum bill. Senator Durbin and Lee are together on a reform of mandatory minimums. We see the Smart Sentencing Act, which reduces mandatory minimums, give judges more discretion in these cases, as a base bill that maybe Senator Booker and I, our bill could be attached to it as an amendment.

But I think there are 60, maybe 70 votes in the Senate for this on both sides of the aisle. There are still some naysayers, but I think the public at large is saying, well, you know, we’re not so sure drugs are right for people, but we are thinking that maybe we should rehabilitate people, that people, particularly kids, deserve a second chance. When they make mistakes, let’s get them back into society and working, which makes them less likely to go back into drugs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Paul, staying with you, I was reading that you campaigned for Senator Booker’s opponent when he ran.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, we’re hoping he forgets that. We hope he forgets that.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was it difficult for the two of you to initiate conversations about this?

SEN. RAND PAUL: From my point of view, no.

And I kind of look at campaigns differently. I may well campaign for a Republican again in New Jersey. But when we’re up here, we’re elected officials. And I try to be civil and peace and commerce with all. And really we have a lot of similarities. This is not us splitting the difference on an issue. It’s actually that we both do agree on this.

And there are some we all — that we won’t agree on, and we will be polite and we will vote the other ways. At least, that’s the way I see it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Booker, I guess this is the second day in a row we have been talking to two senators who are from across the aisle working together. Yesterday, it was funding for veterans health care.

Is this something that helps you, to be working with senators on the other side, in the other party?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, this is what I promised New Jersey voters that I would do.

We’re all tired of a Washington that has these partisan camps where nothing gets done. And so the — one of the main purposes I had coming down here was to solve New Jersey problems, not in a Democratic camp, but by reaching across the aisle, creating uncommon coalitions, as I said on a — last time I appeared on your show — creating those uncommon coalitions necessary to solve complicated problems, immigration reform, drug policy reform, supporting our veterans, corporate tax reform.

Neither of these — none of these problems are going to be solved in a Democratic way or a Republican way. They’re going to solved in an American way by the people we elect coming together, finding compromise and moving our nation not left or right, but moving it forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Paul, your name very much out there as a potential candidate in 2016.

Is this — again, is this something — when you work with senators from the other side of the aisle in the Senate, is that seen as helping you in Iowa and New Hampshire?

SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, I think it helps both parties.

Congress in general has about a 10 percent approval rating. So any time we work together, it does help both parties. But I don’t do it simply because I think it’s something that will help me or help Senator Booker. I do — it really — I passionately believe in this.

I think the war on drugs has a racial outcome, and we ought to try to fix that as well. There’s a host of issues. I have introduced five different criminal justice issues in the last two months. And is it good politically? Yes, I’m obviously a politician and I like to get more votes.

But it’s also the right thing to do, and that is really what motivates me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I know the two of you worked on at least one other piece of legislation last year. And that was to prevent — forbid the federal government from spending money to interfere with state marijuana laws.

Are there other issues where the two of you are working together or are in agreement?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Yes, there’s a lot of things that we have been discussing, from the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, making that one to one.

There’s areas within the world of drug policy reform. So the great thing about Senator Paul and our conversations — and he came up to me literally moments after I was sworn in — is that there is a large recognition that he and I have that we have a criminal justice that has gone awry, costing taxpayers too much money.

And I want to add some credence to what he’s saying. And us Democrats — whether it’s Paul Ryan, whether you agree with what he’s saying or not, he’s talking about poverty. You just heard Rand Paul talking about the racial disparities. Please understand, we have more African-Americans in this country under criminal supervision right now than all of the slaves in 1850.

These are urgencies that, no matter what your party, should weigh upon your consciousness. They belie the truth of who we are as Americans. And we need to address them.

And so I’m glad that I have a partner in Rand Paul. Both of us could write a dissertation on our disagreements, but we find — we’re finding common ground and having the common sense to say, you know what, if we both agree on something, let’s see if we can advance the ball by joining with our colleagues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both. And we thank you for joining us, Senator Cory Booker, Senator Rand Paul. Thank you.

SEN. RAND PAUL: Thank you.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Thank you very much.