NAACP president Benjamin Jealous writes for CNN that the Republican Party should take a cue from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and address the inequities of mass incarceration. A recent survey of 1,600 African-American voters indicates an opportunity for the GOP to begin to heal the rift with the African-American community by meaningfully taking on criminal justice reform and demonstrating a sincere commitment to civil liberties.
Jealous notes that Paul received applause while speaking to a crowd at Howard University, one of the nation's historically black colleges, when Paul contended: "We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionally punishes the black community." Jealous suggests taking on the issue of criminal justice reform is "one issue where the GOP can connect with black voters." Data from the NAACP survey provides empirical support.
First, it's important to note the data indicate 55 percent of African-Americans don't think the Republican Party cares at all about civil rights and equality, 32 percent think Republicans just say what minorities want to hear, whereas only 7 percent think Republicans are sincerely working hard to address civil rights and equality. In stark contrast, 71 percent of African-Americans think Democrats are working hard to promote equality and civil rights, only 18 percent think it's just rhetoric, and only 2 percent think the Democrats don't care at all.
Likewise, about three-fourths of African-Americans view Democrats as working hard on issues of poverty, public education, health care, and job opportunities. Democrats score higher than Republicans by margins of about 60 points on these issues. However, only 30 percent of African-Americans think Democrats are "working hard to reduce mass incarceration." Although Republicans don't score much better (only 6 percent) there is only a 24 point differential.
Jealous points out:
As Paul demonstrated, mass incarceration is also a fundamental conservative issue. State spending on prisons has tripled over the last 30 years, reaching $70 billion in 2008. Federal prisons are at 139% capacity, often thanks to harsh mandatory minimum sentences. And who pays for all these guards, beds and three square meals a day? Taxpayers.
In fact, some red states have led the way on criminal justice reform. In Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, Republican legislatures have teamed up with progressives to increase options for parole and reduce mandatory minimums. In Texas, the NAACP and progressive activists worked with leaders of the Tea Party to pass a dozen reform measures. Last year, Texas scheduled the first prison closure in state history.
Rand Paul is not the first national Republican leader to speak up, either. Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush are both members of the conservative think tank Right on Crime. And in 2011, Gingrich joined Grover Norquist and other unlikely allies—including Mike Jiminez, the president of California's prison guard union—to endorse the NAACP's report, Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate. The report revealed how the rise in prison spending has caused states to spend less on education.
These alliances should draw the attention of Republican leaders. Many Democrats shy away from talking about criminal justice reform, for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."
The NAACP report finds that African-Americans are considerably less enthusiastic about the Democrats in 2016 than they were in 2012. The survey also found that about 14 percent of African-Americans would be more likely to vote for a Republican who took a stand for civil rights and equality. Although this share may seem small, the African-American vote for President Obama exceeded his margin of victory in several key battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, demonstrating that margins matter.
But most importantly, if one is not just concerned with winning votes but cares about people and cares about the ideas that improve people's lives, then it makes perfect sense to take on these issues with a moral imperative.