Rand Paul: The Unlikely Proponent of Criminal Justice Reform

By Zachary Siegel 02/02/16

Though he may not be the next POTUS, Paul clearly sees the racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

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They say it's murder to your political career as a conservative to appear “soft on crime,” but Rand Paul is a right-wing libertarian cut from a different cloth. He is the one conservative who believes institutional racism contributes to the mass incarceration of black and Latino Americans. 

In last Thursday’s Republican primary debate, Paul went off on a brief monologue about criminal justice and racial disparity, especially relating to drug crimes. America’s prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders and Paul sees this as a major problem that the Republican party must address. 

When the moderators brought up last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum, Paul said: 

"In Ferguson, for every 100 African-American women, there are only 60 African-American men. Drug use is about equal between white and black, but our prisons three out of four people in prison are black or brown. I think something has to change. I think it’s a big thing that our party needs to be part of, and I’ve been a leader in Congress on trying to bring about criminal justice reform."

Paul knows his party is on the wrong side of history regarding these issues and is taking steps toward rectifying a dire situation where institutional racism has led to mass incarceration. The right wing attitude toward systemic racism, especially for Ayn Randian libertarians, is that personal responsibility and lack of self-reliant values are the reasons for more black and brown people being in jail. 

But Rand Paul sees through such rhetoric, and the facts are on his side. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services drug use between races is nearly identical. Yet 57% of drug offenders in state prisons and 77% of drug offenders in federal prison are black or Latino. Whites are rarely surveilled, policed, and arrested for drug crimes though they use drugs at the same rates or even higher than people of color. 

Though Rand Paul is an unlikely nominee, his influence in the GOP may bring these issues forward to those who typically deny their existence. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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