Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul

The potential presidential contender weighs in on proposed changes to the criminal justice system.

Rand Paul was elected Kentucky's junior U.S. senator in 2010. A vocal advocate for a balanced-budget amendment, he's gained prominence for his independent positions on many political issues. He first received national attention in 2008 when making political speeches on behalf of his father, Dr. Ron Paul of Texas, who was in the GOP presidential race. Before taking elected office, the younger Paul practiced ophthalmology for 17 years and founded an eye clinic that serviced the needy. He's also provided free eye surgery through the Children of the Americas Program and continues to provide pro-bono surgery to Kentuckians in need of care. Paul has indicated he's considering a 2016 bid for the presidency.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Senator Rand Paul is considered by some to be a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, although he hasn’t said whether he’s even running or not; hardly kowtowing to party leadership, though.

He’s spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes, against voter ID laws, and today he filibustered against President Obama’s court of appeals nominee over the issue of the legality of drones.

He joins us tonight from Capitol Hill. Senator Paul, good to have you on this program, sir.

Sen. Rand Paul: Glad to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start with your filibuster today. A lot of attention, of course, on this particular nominee and whether or not he deserves to sit on an appellate court bench seat. What was your filibuster based on today?

Paul: Well I think the very foundation of our American jurisprudence is that you’re presumed to be innocent until you’re found guilty by a jury or by trial, a judge.

You’re supposed to get a lawyer; you’re supposed to get your day in court. I think if we have accusations made in secret by one branch, the Executive Branch, then I don’t think that that really is due process.

The Fifth Amendment’s clear: We’re not supposed to be putting someone to death without giving them a trial. So even though I don’t doubt really the guilt of the people who were killed by drones, I think they were traitors, I would try them for treason so we can be very careful that there is a trial and that they do get a day in court, particularly if they want to come home and have their day in court.

I think it’s dangerous to accuse someone and then go ahead and kill them without a trial.

Tavis: What’s the connection specifically to this nominee that makes you use this occasion to filibuster his nomination?

Paul: Yeah, this nominee, David Barron, wrote memos for the president that the president has kept secret. Even though the second circuit court said that these memos should be made and revealed to the public, they’ve kept these secret.

But in these memos it is known that David Barron justified for the president why he can kill an American overseas without a trial or without due process, and I think that the message he’s sending is one that goes against the history of our country.

The history of our country is that you do deserve your day in court because sometimes we get the wrong people. All you have to do is think of the movie “Twelve Angry Men,” where the jurors, they all think this poor Mexican kid is guilty.

But as they hash through all the evidence, on juror eventually turns all the other jurors’ minds. That wouldn’t happen if you don’t have a jury. You have to remember that while these people were in all likelihood traitors, it’s an accusation.

It’s sort of like me saying well this guy in Philadelphia belonged to the Black Panthers and he robbed a liquor store and killed this person. Well he may well have done that, but it’s an accusation.

So you go to a trial and the person gets to present evidence why maybe they didn’t do this. Maybe they were at the dentist and this was somebody that looked like them.

That’s what courts and trials are for. It’s just amazing to me that people think well once we think that they’re a traitor, this all goes out the window. You should still get your day in court, even if it’s a terrible, despicable crime, and even, frankly, if you’re guilty. You should get your day in court.

Tavis: I want to get, in just a second here, Senator Paul, to your opposition to these mandatory minimums, a fascinating angle on that that I want to talk about in just a second.

But since this is your filibuster of earlier today, how forthcoming still does the Obama administration need to be to the American people about its justification of this drone program?

Paul: Well I think one of the things that came out of my opposition was that the president did today agree to release this to the public. But here’s the backward nature of this – he didn’t say when.

It could be months from now, and we’re voting on the judge, who will get a lifetime appointment. This judge will now be interpreting the Constitution, but this is a judge who believes the Constitution doesn’t apply to you when you’re overseas.

He believes that if the government accuses you of a crime while you’re overseas that you can be killed – with an accusation, not a conviction. This is a very important distinction, and I think before he is given a lifetime appointment we should see this and the public should debate about it.

Now I’ve seen the memos, but that was also under duress. The president’s now releasing them to the public, but we won’t get to see them in time and have a big, full-throated debate on your television program and other places until the vote’s already happened. In fact, the vote already happened. It’s over now.

Tavis: Finally, on this issue of drones, what agency do the American people have to press back on the White House, Congress, or anybody else who has not been as transparent, as forthcoming about this as they should be?

How did this program get to be so robust without the American people having a say on this kind of engagement vis-à-vis foreign policy?

Paul: What’s interesting, some of this stuff started under the last administration. They weren’t doing so many drone killings, and I don’t think they killed an American, but they were detaining Americans.

Really interestingly, candidate Obama was a big opponent of detaining Americans without a trial and he spoke out against it as a candidate. But as president, President Obama has actually signed legislation allowing for the detention and now for the killing of Americans without due process.

So it’s kind of really almost as if President Obama’s position on a lot of this is now the same as President Bush’s position was, and that’s kind of disturbing, because a lot of people who voted for President Obama really hoped that he was going to be different on some of these issues.

It turns out pretty much the same, if not more draconian in allowing killings to occur without any kind of due process.

Tavis: Let me shift now to mandatory minimums, speaking about the differences and the likenesses between Obama and Bush. When Obama as Senator Obama ran for president, he suggested then that he thought the ratio that was 100 to one should have been zero to zero between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.

We know full well that crack is used in the streets, cocaine is used in the suites, and yet there was this 100 to one sentencing disparity written into law and codified, again, in fact, by the Clinton administration.

They signed off on this yet again this sentencing, this racist sentencing disparity. You’ve come out pretty aggressively against mandatory minimum sentences. That’s just one slice of it. But give me your sense of why you’re so aggressively opposed to these sentences.

Paul: Well this is something that I have complimented the president on. He’s given some pardons, he’s also commuted some sentences on people who have been in 10 and 20 years for crack-cocaine, nonviolent crime.

They didn’t hurt anybody, maybe they hurt themselves, but they were kept in prison for over a decade. He’s, I think, correcting some of these problems. It used to be 100 to one, the disparity between crack and powder.

A few years ago they changed it to 18 to one, but they didn’t get anybody out of jail that was already put in under the old standards. So what I would like to do is I would like judges to have more discretion.

We have too many people in prison for nonviolent crimes and you’re exactly right – there’s been a racial outcome. Three out of four people in prison are Black or Brown, but if you look at drug use, white kids are using drugs just as much as Black or Brown kids.

But there is a disproportionate amount of arrests and convictions of Black and Brown kids, so our prisons are full of kids. I think they need to get a second chance. I think they shouldn’t be there to begin with, some of them.

But I think really we need to give judges more discretion so we don’t have people in jail for marijuana for 10 years or 20 years. We need to get people back in the system.

Kids make mistakes. I want people to get back employed again. I don’t want this to be a permanent thing that prevents people from getting out and really getting back into society.

When you do make it permanent, they never get back in. They get out and they can’t get a good job because they’re a convicted felon. Unfortunately, some of them go back into the drug trade.

So we’re really making a mistake on this, but this is something that Eric Holder’s tried to do that is good, so has the president, and even though I’m a Republican and often critical of both of them, this is something where I’ve complimented them and actually tried to work with them on this.

Tavis: If you put a knife in my back 12 inches and you pull it out six, I don’t call that progress, although you might. I’d like the knife out of my back. A hundred to one was wrong to begin with.

It was racist when it was written into law the first time. Eighteen to one is better, but that’s not progress to me. It still ought to be – I think it should have been handled differently. Why did we get stuck? Why did we stop at 18 to one in the Senate?

Paul: I don’t have the exact answer on that, but I do have some things that I’ve been reading about recently about the weights of drugs and how really some of that has gone a little bit insane in the sense that they’re weighing the weights of things that aren’t the actual drug themselves to increase the penalties on people.

The bottom line is I think the war on drugs is incarcerating too many people, and I’m approaching this on a lot of different levels. One of the things that we’re also looking at is trying to make some of these things they call felonies into misdemeanors so you don’t get a felony record.

The problem with a felony record is you can do something that’s a nonviolent, youthful offense and it sticks with you for your whole life. When you apply for jobs you’ve got to say you’re a convicted felon.

It doesn’t make it easy to get a job. I’ve got a friend whose brother grew marijuana plants 30 years ago. He can’t vote in Kentucky, and he has difficulty getting employment because of a felony record.

But he’s not a bad person and he deserves a second chance. There’s a lot of this, particularly in the minority community. I’m doing everything I can to try to sort it out and fix it and make it better.

Tavis: Before I let you go, let me circle back again to the news of the day one last time – your filibuster on the Senate floor about this particular nominee that is before the Senate right now.

Beyond his nomination, what is your sense of whether or not, and when, for that matter, the American people will really be able to engage in a transparent conversation about this drone program. Do you see that happening? Do you see the policy changing any time soon?

Paul: Well that was one of my points today, is even though they’ve revealed these memos I think the process for when they’re going to determine to kill an American, some are saying there’s a hundred Americans overseas engaged in some of this treasonous activity.

But are we going to decide in secret which ones are guilty and which ones are not? There really is a slippery slope when you think well what if you’re visiting your cousins in Lebanon and you’re an American Arab, but your cousins are now involved with something.

Can you be killed because you’re now dining with them or visiting with them, and it appears as if you’re an operative? That really, these things ought to be worked out in a court and you ought to get a lawyer.

Death is such an horrendous punishment that I don’t think we should kill people with drones, Americans who are visiting overseas, without some kind of process. You can’t have due process if you don’t get a chance for a trial or a lawyer.

So I disagree with the president on this, and I’m very worried that no one has really said the process is going to change, and no one said that this is not going to be decided in secret. I really strongly object to that.

Tavis: Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Senator, thanks for your time. Good to have you on the program.

Paul: Thanks, Tavis.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 22, 2014 at 3:46 pm