Rand Paul

Rand Paul Says Criminal Justice Reform Can Expand the GOP's Appeal

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Jacob Sullum

At a Republican Liberty Caucus event in Dallas last Friday, Rand Paul argued that the GOP can expand its appeal without forsaking conservative principles by supporting criminal justice reform, including a less punitive approach to drugs:

How do we grow a movement big enough to win nationally? It's some of the libertarian ideas that bring the right and left together. Our way is eventually to get a bigger party, because we need to become a bigger party if we want any chance of winning nationally….

There is a third [of voters] that is hardened on either side, and there's the third in the middle. I think, frankly, some of the third in the middle would like to see more criminal justice reform and a less harsh war on drugs. They acknowledge that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome.

The Kentucky senator, who has introduced legislation that would effectively abolish federal mandatory minimum sentences (by letting judges ignore them in the interest of justice), said he is trying to "make the penalties for mostly nonviolent drug [offenses] less severe": 

Basically, don't put people into jail for 10, 15 years. Let them get back to work, let them expunge their records if they've served their time, because if you don't let people get back to work and voting and all of the normal things you can do when you're out of prison, what is the likelihood that they go back to prison for the same thing again? Some will say that's a liberal idea. Well, actually it's a very conservative idea also. Prisons are very, very expensive….You want prisons that separate out people who are a danger to others. People who use drugs are a danger to themselves, and we can argue what the penalty should be, but it shouldn't be 10 or 15 years in jail….A lot of us are Christians, and we believe in redemption and second chances.

Paul is fudging a bit when he makes it sound as if people commonly serve 10 or 15 years merely for using drugs, although his rhetoric on the subject is more sophisticated than it was a couple of years ago, when he referred to people "in jail for 20 years" for "smoking pot." In any case, it is clear from his passionate criticism of mandatory minimums that his concerns about excessive penalties extend to drug suppliers as well as drug users.  

Paul also has talked about shifting drug policy toward the states, which he says should be free to legalize marijuana, although he does not endorse that policy. Consistent with that position, he has backed legislation aimed at preventing federal interference with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. This federalist approach may help conservatives reconcile themselves to the idea that somebody, somewhere is smoking pot he bought at a state-licensed store. But if fully applied, it is tantamount to repealing national prohibition. That is what the 21st Amendment did, leaving alcohol policy to the states.

The radical implications of Paul's federalism extend far beyond drug policy, as became apparent toward the end of the Q&A session in Dallas, when he was asked, "How can a transformative presidency restore federalism?" His reply:

Well, you could obey Article 1, Section 8, which gives the powers to the Congress. There's about, depending on how you count them, 17 or 19. Everything else should go back to the states. There shouldn't be a Department of Education. It should all be done in Texas, all done in Tennessee, in Kentucky. You don't need most of these federal departments….

Randy Barnett writes a lot about the Ninth and 10th amendments, where we've ignored both of them. The powers that were given were specific and limited….The opposite side of that is that the rights you have are numerous, infinite, and not defined.

You could interpret the reference to Barnett, the Georgetown law professor who wrote Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty, as a signal of reassurance to libertarians disappointed by Paul's ideological impurity. But to me it seems like another example of the intellectual candor that occasionally gets Paul into trouble (as it did when he expressed reservations about the Civil Rights Act). It is one of his more appealing qualities. Whether it amounts to anything in practice is another question. 

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  1. CJ reform is the right thing to do, but I very much doubt that it will result in a political windfall. Most people do not vote based on CJ issues, and the impacted community is more invested in various giveaway programs than in CJ reform. Hell, the impacted community oftentimes does not desire justice, and to the degree that CJ reform is an attempt to re-establish justice both for the guilty and the innocent, they will oppose it.

    1. Perhaps doing the correct thing is its own reward, but I agree that no criminal justice reform undertaken by the Republicans will yield a single electoral college vote or a single House member or Senator.

      1. Letting felons out of prison isn’t going to help. They can’t vote.

  2. Rand Paul argued that the GOP can expand its appeal without forsaking conservative principles by supporting criminal justice reform…

    Doing it would actually be sticking to conservative principles, which is why the GOP won’t do it.

    1. All of this conservative vs liberal stuff is just a distraction. Both terms are too ambiguous, they have lost any real meaning.

      In reality, there’s the libertarians and there’s the statists.

  3. The powers that were given were specific and limited….The opposite side of that is that the rights you have are numerous, infinite, and not defined.

    That has long been flipped.

  4. Rand Paul wants rapists and drug pushers on our playgrounds. Just say NO to Rand Paul! Hillary 2016!

  5. Well, you could obey Article 1, Section 8, which gives the powers to the Congress. There’s about, depending on how you count them, 17 or 19. Everything else should go back to the states. There shouldn’t be a Department of Education. It should all be done in Texas, all done in Tennessee, in Kentucky. You don’t need most of these federal departments….

    TERRORIST! A modern, common sense society NEEDS a massive, unaccountable bureaucracy with equally unaccountable public unions to represent the bureaucrats and enforcers! Only right-wing, ISIS, Christian Taliban, gun nut, terrorists want to reduce the size of the federal government!

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact! *falls on the fainting couch*

  6. Am I the only person who gets upset when people talk about local control of schools? I don’t care what branch of government runs schools. It’s still socialism. Cities don’t do socialism much better than whole countries.

    1. If you accept that public schools aren’t going away, then local control is better.

      Local control means that if someone has an idea, then it can be tried. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t. If it does then it’s kept, if not it’s abandoned.

      Federal control means all schools obey the ideas of federal bureaucrats, good or bad, and keep obeying them no matter what.

      1. Educational outcomes were stagnant before the Department of Education was created. It is just more expensive to have 4 levels of burreacracy instead of just 3. It’s a lot harder to have an issue campaign on local issues because there’s no economies of scale or ability to take advantage of the mass reach of the Internet. I’d also add that local laws and regulations are often worse than federal ones like zoning or occupational liscensure. The reason is that there’s able to be a mass movement against EPA abuses, but local issues are hard as hell to fight because every town has different laws.

  7. What Constitution has Rand Paul read? Congress is empowered to pass all laws that are necessary and proper to promote the general welfare and regulate commerce, and they can also levy taxes. The rest is just 18th century gibberish.

    /proglodyte

  8. Rand Paul wants the terrorists to win! Just say No to Rand Paul. Hillary 2016!

  9. I must say that the picture that Mr Sullum has chosen of Senator Paul, does not show Paul to particularly good advantage. In fact it makes him look old and tired.

    1. Its because they just took this photo and reversed it.

      The Rand Paul ‘stock-photo’ drawer is shallow. I personally think the one of him doing eye surgery should be used all the time.

    2. You know who else looks old and tired?

      1. Episiarch’s mom?

  10. Pretty sad to see a good cause couched in terms of winning votes, but I would desperately like to see Democrats run against it. “Letting drug abusers out prematurely–or failing to remove them from their toxic environments in the first place–is not in the best interest of addicts. They need access to the care and rehabilitation efforts only mandatory incarceration can provide.”

    1. Oh, don’t think that they will not run on that. The Democrats are perfectly willing to run on whatever policy they think will get them more votes. If they nominate Hillary, they suddenly become war hawks and will definitely use this topic against Rand. Criminals running amok! Drug pushers on our playgrounds! Sex predators on every corner!

      And they know their sheeples will get in line with whatever they throw out. Rand Paul will be the next Koch Bros or Sarah Palin or GW Bush. When the left put out their marching orders, the sheep will grab their pitch forks and run to the street. Rand Paul one percenter, murderer of old ladies and children, enemy of the people! Worse than Boosh and Hitler combined!

  11. The GOP is doing its best to destroy Rand Paul.

    1. They want Hillary.

    2. Then why’d they nominate him?

  12. Paul is fudging a bit when he makes it sound as if people commonly serve 10 or 15 years merely for using drugs, although his rhetoric on the subject is more sophisticated than it was a couple of years ago, when he referred to people “in jail for 20 years” for “smoking pot.”

    And yet, just a couple days ago I read an article about a man in prison doing life without parole for three counts of marijuana possession.

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