Sen. Rand Paul raised a lot of eyebrows Tuesday when, in his speech announcing his presidential candidacy, he declared: "I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed."
Critics — and not just critics — immediately wondered: Don't lots of laws result in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color? Should they all be repealed? Laws against murder, robbery, and assault, to name just a few examples, would fit that description. In each of those cases, people of color are imprisoned more, in proportion to their part of the population, than whites.
"Rand Paul accidentally proposed legalizing murder," read the headline in the liberal website Vox. "Rand Paul remains an embarrassment," read the headline in the conservative PowerLine.
The Paul campaign says the senator's words were misunderstood. "Sen. Paul was referring to nonviolent crimes," campaign spokeswoman Eleanor May told me via email, adding that the passage in question was "a reference to his criminal justice reforms."
May sent along brief descriptions of five bills Paul is sponsoring that deal with the criminal justice system. These are the Paul camp's descriptions of the measures:
The REDEEM Act: Creates a judicial process for adults to seal non-violent criminal records on the federal level. It also creates an automatic expungement of records for non-violent juveniles under the age of 15. It mandates the FBI to update their criminal background check system to ensure that employers receive accurate information. States are incentivized to have substantially similar legislation on the state level or risk losing appropriations for law enforcement agencies.
Justice Safety Valve Act: Judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentencing laws if they find that it is in the best interests of justice to do so. This would increase judicial discretion and allow judges to make individualized determinations about the proper punishment for defendants.
Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act: If passed, this would restore the voting rights of every non-violent felon in the country. Non-violent felons would be able to vote in federal elections only and states that do not change their laws to reflect this would not receive federal prison funds.
RESET Act: This bill re-classifies simple possession of controlled substances — very small amounts — as a misdemeanor rather than a low-level felony. It also eliminates the crack-cocaine disparity.
FAIR Act: This bill ensures that the federal government would have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that seized property was being used for illegal purposes before it's forfeited. Forfeited assets would be placed in the Treasury's General Fund instead of the DOJ's Asset Forfeiture Fund. This shift would remove the profit incentive police officers currently have to seize and forfeit property. The bill would also protect the property rights of citizens by eliminating the ability of state law enforcement to circumvent state asset forfeiture laws and use more lenient federal standards instead.
Most of the measures are indeed limited to non-violent offenses. But looking at the modesty of some of them, it's fair to say that Paul — if he was referring to those bills in his speech — was engaging in a pretty significant overstatement when he said, "I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed."