BOWIE, Md.—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spent Friday afternoon at one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country, arguing for changes to the criminal justice system while trying to woo African-Americans to the Republican Party.
“Something is wrong here,” Paul said of mandatory minimum prison sentences. “To compound this, there is a racial outcome.”
“I don’t think there’s a racial intention,” he told the audience at Bowie State University. “But I tell people that I think they’re not looking if they don’t think the incarceration problem in our country is not skewed toward race. I don’t think it’s purposeful. But I do think it’s actual and it’s real and we should do something about it.”
After his appearance, Paul, a likely candidate for president in 2016, took a few questions from The Daily Caller about his views on criminal justice and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where two police officers were shot this week. (Transcript lightly edited for clarity).
In terms of going to these campuses and the other locations that Republicans don’t usually go to, what have you learned?
Paul: Everywhere I go, I do learn something. And I think people would be amazed to know how many people are limited by their criminal records. How many people who are ministers who have a criminal record. When they were a kid, they just did something wrong.
Heck, the last three presidents we’ve had could have had a criminal record. I think that’s the one thing that’s particularly galling, particularly to young people, if they hear, “oh, so and so, a candidate for president, smoked pot when they were a kid and yet still wants to put people in jail for it.”
I think that kind of hypocrisy is tough for people to hear. Because while the crowd here — obviously the kids here going to school are probably all mostly behaved — everybody here, including all walks of life, has a brother, sister, cousin, who got in trouble somewhere. And they think, “Well, gosh, do they deserve to never get a job? Do they deserve 50 years in prison?”
I’m struck by that one kid, in Rolling Stone, Timothy Tyler, who is 46, almost my age, been in jail his whole adult life and is going to spend the rest of his life in jail. For LSD. And I’m not condoning it. I think it was a dumb thing for him to do. It’s like, for goodness sake, you didn’t kill somebody.
I want to ask you about Ferguson. You brought Ferguson up a couple times in there. You traveled there. But the whole narrative that drove the protests — that led to some of the arson, the riots, maybe even the shootings this week — was based off of “hands up, don’t shoot.” DOJ says that probably didn’t happen. What do you make of that?
Paul: I think the way I look at it is certain things got stuff started. But if there hadn’t been this undercurrent of unease, all this other stuff, it wouldn’t be so prolonged. And it wouldn’t be so significant. If everybody was happy, and it was one bad instance, there wouldn’t be so much unhappiness. Know what I mean?
And I’ve tried to stay out of the details of it because obviously there was an altercation and there’s definitely arguments on both sides. And I mean, I’m not going to question a grand jury and all that stuff.
But I do question the amount of fines. There’s over two million dollars in civil fines in one year. The 31,000 arrest warrants for 21,000 people in one year. Stuff like that I question.
Do you think Ferguson has been demagogued for political reasons?
Paul: Well you know, every issue always has people that will demagogue it. You know, I think it’s more complicated, and people are more complicated than the sort of narratives that we give out. So when I went there, one of the businesses I went in was minority owned, on that main street there. They’re not happy about riots. It’s their business being trashed. Almost every one in the meeting I went to was an African-American business owner, chamber of commerce, kind of person. Doctors, lawyers, ministers, that kind of thing. They didn’t like it, but even they were unhappy.
I can tell you, that I can meet a conservative, well-to-do, African-American Republican their whole life, and they will tell me they still don’t feel like things are perfect, as far as our criminal justice system. Even though they’re not suffering, they’re obviously not part of that. So we’ve got some work to do. And I think it isn’t always a black and white thing, either. So I don’t think it’s really a racism that’s causing this. But there is a disproportionate amount, because there’s a disproportionate amount of poverty.
A 2016 question — with the new change to a caucus in Kentucky, does that mean you’re pretty much all but in now?
Paul: If I do make the decision to run, it helps.