It’s doesn’t happen often, but Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is right.
Mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses have sent more black people to prison, than were enslaved in America’s checkered past, and the first step to eradicate this structural inequality that plagues black and brown communities is to end mandatory minimum sentencing.
In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Senator Paul decried harsh sentencing laws saying, “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.”
Paul is referring to critical battleground states including Virginia, Florida, and Nevada that strip felons of their voting rights forever. In some states, including New York and New Jersey, you are able to have your voting rights restored but even still the loss of the fundamental constitutional right over a drug offense seems like a tall price to pay for small amounts of marijuana.
Furthermore, while the majority of those incarcerated for drug offenses are black and brown, the majority of drug users are white. “The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino.”
Senator Paul also noted in remarks he gave at Howard University earlier this year, the disparity in sentencing puts even first-time offenders in prison for too long. “I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions, such as non-violent possession of drugs, are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences. I am working to make sure that first-time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals. We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake.”
As much as it must pain activists to agree with Republican Senator Rand Paul, who is not particularly strong on issues of structural inequality, his views on the war on drugs are right on target. Paul may be against key portions the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but his remarks at the Senate hearing echo many liberal activists fighting the good fight against mass incarceration and discriminatory drug sentencing laws.
Senator Paul and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) co-sponsored the Justice Safety Value Act, a bill which seeks to address the disparities in low-level drug sentencing. The bill gives judges discretion and comes on the heels of the Department of Justice instructing federal prosecutors to avoid charging non-violent drug offenders, who have no ties to larger organizations or cartels, with crimes that would require imposing harsh sentences. This dramatic shift by the Obama administration is welcome news in communities ravaged by harsh sentences for minor offenses.
While it’s an uphill battle, the surprising alliance between severely conservative Republican Rand Paul and activists on the left might just shift the debate over sentencing and create the space for legislative change.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.