Rand Paul Has Potential To Push The GOP On Criminal Justice

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced on Tuesday that he is running for president, saying that he would be a “different kind of Republican leader” than the dozen others also vying for the Republican nomination.

The Tea Party Senator and former ophthalmologist has made headlines for supporting radical conservative policies like the right of parents to not vaccinate their children and the belief that a majority of people collecting disability benefits are “gaming the system.” But he has also distanced himself from his libertarian roots in preparation for seeking the nomination.

Other GOP candidates will likely try to distance themselves from Paul, who has a history of advocating particularly extreme views, like opposing the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters and claiming that the right of “private ownership” should trump the right to be free from racist discrimination.

While the Republican senator follows his party’s beliefs and generally supports conservative social and economic policies, his position on criminal justice is surprisingly progressive. Paul has invoked his positions to try to reach out to African American voters, who typically vote for Democrats.

Last year, Paul worked with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to find bipartisan solutions to fix the country’s broken criminal justice system. As a solution, the two first-term senators introduced the REDEEM Act, which would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibility, limit the use of solitary confinement on children and automatically seal juveniles’ criminal records if they committed nonviolent acts.

“Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment,” Paul said in a statement at the time.

Paul also introduced legislation last term that would restore voting rights in federal elections to nonviolent felons — another important policy to improve criminal justice system as the number of people with criminal records who are disenfranchised continues to grow. In the last presidential election in 2012, more than 5.85 million adults were not allowed to vote, according to The Sentencing Project.

“There are people in jail for 37, 50, 45 years for non-violent crimes,” Paul said on Fox News in 2013. “And that’s a huge mistake. Our prisons are full of non-violent criminals.”

Even if he is just trying to appeal to young, moderate voters — as he said on Fox News — Paul’s stance on legalizing marijuana and criminal justice reform more closely matches his colleagues across the aisle than those in his party.

His stance on legalizing medical marijuana is likely to help him in 2016, as a majority of Americans favor the policy, although conservatives continue to resist legislation and Paul has said he prefers leaving decisions on recreational marijuana up to the states. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and the policy will likely be on other states’ ballots this coming election.

On foreign policy, Paul also sounds more like President Obama than some of his Republican challengers. He has supported normalizing relations with Cuba and has broken with his rivals who have advocated for additional sanctions on Iran.

With his faded jeans and fearless but more-practical than his father Ron Paul political views, the Kentucky senator may have a hard time winning over party elites. And he’s not going to help himself by continuing to make extreme mistakes and gaffes like he has done in the recent past.