Criminal Justice

Cory Booker Hopeful About Progress on Criminal Justice Reform

New Jersey senator says attitudes about criminal justice have radically shifted since the '80s and '90s.


Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J) discussed criminal justice reform, bemoaning the economic impact of overincarceration and racial disparities in the drug war but also expressing hope that progress was being made on reforms focusing on treatment of substance use, re-entry programs, as well as other criminal justice issues, at a panel on the topic in Camden, N.J, one of the cities participating in a White House police transparency initiative, and where it was launched.

"This is one of the things I'm fighting for almost every day I'm in the Senate," Booker said.

He noted bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, saying he was working with the chief counsel to the Koch Brothers (David Koch is a trustee of the Reason Foundation, which publishes on criminal justice reform and has had productive discussions about it with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House. Later he noted his work with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the REDEEM Act.

"I can go through the Republican leaders who agree with me that [the criminal justice system] has gone off the rails," Booker said.

Booker praised Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey who also attended the panel. "They're about the headline that they're in," Booker said of other U.S. attorneys, while Fishman "set the standard" in the country to empower people in the criminal justice system to "succeed."

Booker explained he and Fishman had earlier visited a correctional facility, quoting the Bible to explain why such visits are important.

"That's why we have a great president who I miss already," Booker said, explaining the importance of visiting prisons. Barack Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison.

Booker noted that through the 1960s the prison population in the U.S. was similar to global peers, but that the population exploded starting in the 1980s because of fearmongering and "Willie Hortoning."

"From 1980 to today the federal prison population exploded 800 percent," Booker noted. "Disproportionately this has been drug crimes, the so-called war on drugs." Booker said today's focus on "treatment, not jail" was an improvement over the "very different call that people were making" in the 80s and 90s.

"This is taking from us as taxpayers a gross amount of our public treasury," Booker said, insisting the money could have been used to fix the country's "crumbling infrastructure" or spend more on law enforcement.

"We've blown away humanity in building up our infrastructure in one area," Booker said. "Building up prisons."

Booker said there were now "more people in prison in the South than there are in college."

Booker also noted barriers ex-convicts faced. "You can't get many business licenses in New Jersey if you have a criminal record," Booker said.

Booker also pointed out it was important to ask who was being incarcerated. "We disproportionately incarcerate poor people," Booker said. "About 80 percent of people who are incarcerated qualify for indignant defense."

According to Booker, the U.S. also overincarcerated mentally ill people ("if we don't medicate, we incarcerate," said Scott Thomson, the police chief in Camden County, also part of the panel), addicts, and black and brown people.

Booker stressed that the justice system "applied differently in different places," telling a story about four of his high school classmates in the affluent New Jersey town he grew up in breaking into a liquor store to steal beer during senior cut day, and how their parents were brought in and their lives were not destroyed.

"When I went to Stanford University I saw a lot of drug use," Booker noted, "and I'm not just talking marijuana."

"Nobody is raiding our college dorms looking for drugs," he added.

"This is a reality that we have to do something about," Booker said of the disparity of outcomes in the criminal justice system.

Booker praised James Comey, director of the FBI, for talking about discriminatory policing and the kind of training that could prevent it, and stressed the importance of not demonizing police officers.

"The greatest courage I've seen is from law enforcement officers in my city," Booker said of police officers in Newark, where he served as mayor for seven years and continues to reside.

Booker told a story about a hostage situation in Newark involving a woman who killed her baby and tried to kill herself, saying police ran in "with no situational awareness" because they heard gunshots and knew lives were at risk. Booker then explained an officer who had seen something like that had to go home to his family and then return to work the next day. Booker asked the audience what the officer might feel if his first stop the next day is someone "exercising their First Amendment rights" to cuss out the officer.

"This is what we put our police officers through every day," Booker said.

Booker also highlighted the role transparency plays in reducing police violence. "If you can't measure it you can't manage it," Booker said he learned as mayor of Newark, bemoaning the lack of official data on shootings by police officers and even on shootings of police officers.

Booker also offered three policies to combat juvenile delinquency: nurse family partnerships, where nurses are sent to "at risk" families with infants, universal pre-K, and paid family leave.

Also on the panel were Rev. William Heard, of the Kaign Avenue Baptist Church, where the panel was held, and CBS Philadelphia's Alexandria Hoff, who moderated.

Richard Smith of the NAACP NJ State Alliance spoke at the beginning of the event, praising Booker for his work on criminal justice reform. "The NAACP is bipartisan, right?" Smith asked to laughter from the crowd of about 300. "We're not bipartisan," he continued to more laughter. "We;re not partisan, but very political." Smith said he was taking his "NAACP hat off" before saying Booker was "his pick" for vice president.

Smith also noted racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws, and that every 22 minutes in New Jersey someone is arrested for marijuana possession.

The panel largely glossed over the issue of marijuana decriminalization. The moderator noted a person could stand in Philadelphia (where marijuana has been more or less decriminalized) and smoke a joint without issue while watching someone across the river in Camden getting arrested for possession of a joint, which is punishable by six months in jail and/or a $1000 fine. Booker responded to that by calling for "responsible marijuana laws" in New Jersey, stressing that the marijuana laws were not up to local law enforcement. Booker also called politicians in Washington "hypocrites" for supporting the kinds of marijuana laws that may have landed them in jail during their "experimentation."