A friend of mine’s brother was convicted of a felony for growing marijuana plants in his college dorm. Thirty years later he still can’t vote and his felony record prevents him from getting a good job.
Because of his story and others like it, I introduced bipartisan legislation to restore federal voting rights for non-violent offenders upon release from prison.
This week, I introduced another piece of legislation with Senator Cory Booker to make some reforms to the criminal justice system that will help non-violent individuals reintegrate into society and secure employment.
Both of these bills will reform existing federal law to allow low-level offenders a second chance. These ideas will both allow the restoration of the right to vote and the opportunity to remove a permanent blot preventing employment for those released after non-violent punishment.
First, we should restore voting rights to non-violent ex-offenders upon release, so they can vote in federal elections. This is an issue that I feel strongly about.
This past February, I testified before the Kentucky Senate to urge a Kentucky constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to many ex-offenders upon release.
The war on drugs has disproportionately affected men and women of color; minorities are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for certain nonviolent drug offenses, like drug possession, even though surveys show that white Americans use drugs at the similar rate. This is a travesty.
I think that drugs are a scourge and are bad for young people, but a lifetime in prison as punishment is not the answer.
The war on drugs has not lessened drug use. It has simply transformed a health problem into a prison problem, and ultimately an employment and voting rights problem.
While drug use is a problem, I also think it is a mistake to lock people up for 10, 20 or 40 years for youthful mistakes.
If you look at the war on drugs, most of the people locked up are minorities. Yet, drugs are being used by kids of all colors and from all socio-economic backgrounds. So, why is it then that prisons are loaded up with minorities who were prosecuted for drug crimes?
The answer is because it is easier to arrest kids who gather in the city rather than in the suburbs. There are more patrols in the city. We give federal grants based on conviction rates, and frankly, kids who live in impoverished areas have less access to a good attorney.
If you go to the African-American community and ask them if the war on drugs is fair, they will say no. The restoration of voting rights is part of the answer, but we should also reclassify many of these crimes as misdemeanors so youthful mistakes do not prevent voting or employment.
I think non-violent criminals should be treated differently than violent criminals. Long sentences for non-violent crimes should be shortened and efforts should be made to reintegrate these folk into the workforce.
Republicans are the party of family values, yet the war on drugs has led to an increasing number of fatherless families due to drug crimes. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 2.7 million kids now have a parent behind bars and for African American children one out of every nine have a parent in jail. These numbers have risen dramatically since 1980.
I believe in redemption and forgiveness for the 19-year-old kid who made a mistake by purchasing drugs. I think that young people deserve a second chance.
That is why I have worked with Senator Booker to introduce the REDEEM Act to provide kids who get into trouble a second chance at a job and a meaningful life. This legislation would reform federal law to provide a way for adults to seal non-violent criminal records. This will help them to get a job and break the cycle that lands many released individuals back in jail.
I am not condoning bad behavior and drug use — I think it is unhealthy — but I do believe that once you have served your time, you should get your right to vote back and your record should not preclude you from meaningful employment.
I am not done. I am working on two more pieces of legislation to reform the federal criminal code and the way the federal government treats accused individuals by seizing property, then never allowing the assets to get back in the hands of the accused, even if the accused is acquitted.
I have said numerous times that the Republican Party needs to evolve, adapt or die. If the Republican Party wishes to survive, we must go into a variety of communities and listen and understand issues — such as criminal justice reform — and then propose meaningful reforms.
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 2010.