At Sen. Rand Paul's speech to Howard University students Wednesday, the first round of applause went to the two student protesters who stood in front of the stage and unfurled a banner that read, "Howard University Does Not Support White Supremacy." The first round of applause for Paul came 10 minutes or so into his prepared remarks, when the junior senator from Kentucky said, "We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence. That's why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences." Finally: clapping!
The line revealed a neat overlap between civil libertarians and Howard's Democrat-leaning African American student body. It was also something of an exaggeration.
The bill Paul introduced last month–called the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013–isn't nearly so expansive as he led his audience to believe. While the act would allow "courts–in some circumstances–to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum if that sentence is too lengthy, unjust or unreasonable, or doesn't fit the offender or the crime," it doesn't require judges to deviate from the mandatory minimum, nor does it entitle offenders who fit the above criteria to an alternative sentence. If it had passed a decade ago, a bill like Paul's would've empowered a federal judge to sentence 24-year-old small-time pot dealer Weldon Angelos to 18 years in prison, instead of the mandatory 55 he received. In other words, people are still going to have their lives ruined by the drug war if Paul's bill passes.
Don't get me wrong: The bill is a very big step in the right direction. But was it accurate for Paul to say, "I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences"? No. And while I don't think that flub is anything to get upset about, it raises some red flags. Does Paul not understand the drug war? Or is he simply not as zealous as his civil libertarian supporters want him to be? Could both be true?
Moments before he told the Howard audience about his mandatory minimum legislation (you can read the whole speech here), Paul said,
Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased-that they are the new Jim Crow.
But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to everyone, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences.
Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them.
We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence.
As of 2011, 6.98 million people were under correctional supervision in the U.S. Of that number, only 214,000 were in federal prison. Of that number, roughly 100,000 were drug offenders. Even if it were true that all 100,000 of those drug offenders were just like Weldon Angelos, does Paul really believe that drug offenders who are *not* being subjected to federal mandatory minimums (i.e. the overwhelming majority of drug offenders) are getting a fair, or fair-er, shake?
I would not be surprised if he did. What we know about Paul and drug policy at this point is that he abhors lengthy sentences, but not the idea of penaliziing drug offenses. Here he is on Fox: "The main thing I've said is not to legalize [drugs], but not to incarcerate people for extended period of times." Here he is talking to ABC: "We should tell young people, 'I'm not in favor of you smoking pot, but if you get caught smoking pot, I don't want to put you in jail for 20 years.'"
And today at Howard U.: "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."
The takeaway? Paul seems to think some people should be imprisoned for drugs, though not for very long; and that other people should be forced into counseling. That's a standard position for both Democrats and Republicans at this point, but it's not the least bit libertarian.