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Cory Booker, Rand Paul team up on sentencing reform bill

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on Capitol Hill last November. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 3:05 p.m.

Two freshmen senators eager to expand their national profiles are teaming up to introduce a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's criminal justice system that they say will cut government spending and help make it easier for nonviolent criminals to eventually secure a job.

The proposals set to be unveiled Tuesday by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are unlikely to advance this year, but address a series of policy and political priorities for both senators. Booker previously served as mayor of Newark and has made the fate of inner city youth a key part of his public service. Partnering with Paul continues Booker's pattern of seeking out Republicans to work with as he casts himself as a bipartisan broker ahead of his election campaign in November for a full term.

Paul has openly discussed running for president in 2016 and has talked regularly about his concern that the nation's prisons are overcrowded with people serving excessive sentences for minor crimes. Such concerns are a key element of his libertarian-leaning philosophy and further cast him as a Republican eager and willing to cross the aisle — and visit the nation's urban centers — to seek out policy solutions and gain supporters in areas of the country often ignored by Republicans.

Most of all, aides say the legislation addresses a common concern for Booker and Paul: That the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, but a quarter of the world's prison population.

The REDEEM Act proposal would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibly to 18 years of age; expunge or seal the records of juveniles who commit non-violent crimes before they turn 15; place limits on the solitary confinement of most juveniles; and establish a system to allow eligible nonviolent criminals to petition a court to ask that their criminal records be sealed. Sealing the records would keep them out of FBI background checks requested by employers and likely make it easier for those former offenders to secure a job.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington in June. (Drew Angerer/EPA)

Currently 10 states set the age at which someone can be tried in adult criminal court below 18, a move that the senators said in their statement "sends countless kids into the unforgiving adult criminal system." In hopes of reversing the trend, Booker and Paul propose giving states that change the minimum age preference when applying for federal community police grants. The same preference would be given to states that allow nonviolent offenders to petition to have their criminal records sealed. Once the records are sealed, an offender could lawfully claim that their records don't exist.

Booker said in a statement that the legislation "will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."

Paul said, "The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration."

In an interview last month, Paul said that his proposals to overhaul the criminal justice system are "part of the sort of libertarianish message that I’ve always had – that the war on drugs has been unfair and it just turns out that it’s had a real racial component to it."

“I mean, three out of four people in prison for drugs are black or brown," he said in the interview. "Nobody sort of wrote that policy down, but it’s related either to poverty or ease of conviction. But for one reason or another, when you look at polls, white kids use drugs just as much as black and brown kids, but white kids aren't going to jail at nearly the rate. Some in the government promote it too, because government actually gives out grants based on conviction rates. And you think, I'm a police chief, you might think, where’s it going to be easiest to wreck people, where they're all standing outside smoking pot or doing whatever, or where they’re in the suburbs in grandmother’s million dollar house in the basement smoking pot? It just inevitably has led to more poor kids being arrested. But it’s also really bad thing that we’re doing, I mean decades in jail for possession and stuff."

Longtime advocates for drug sentencing reforms cheered the new proposals.

“The fact that two young and rising stars of both parties, both rumored to be considering future White House runs, are so passionately embracing criminal justice reform shows how politically popular these issues have become,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Voters want reform and smart elected officials know that. This legislation is good policy and good politics.”

The fate of the REDEEM Act is unclear since most legislation introduced this year has failed to advance beyond the committee level, especially in the Senate, where years-long personality-driven disputes over procedure and fiscal policy have essentially driven the chamber to a halt.

But the new proposals help build out the policy portfolios for both senators. Paul unveiled a plan last month that would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in federal elections. Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced a proposal in April that would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs for younger Americans, especially minorities struggling to find work.

While seemingly odd bedfellows, Booker and Paul have teamed up before.

The two played off the holiday Festivus, which was created on the show “Seinfeld” an includes an “airing of the grievances.” The complaints they let loose on Twitter almost all centered around the criminal justice system and need for sentencing reform.

They announced their intention to team up on legislation earlier this year, and have referenced one another when speaking about criminal justice reform. Paul campaigned for Booker’s opponent in the 2013 special election that sent him to Washington, but that all now appears to be in the past.

Katie Zezima contributed to this report.


Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.



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