Sen. Booker To Propose Next Steps In Criminal Justice Overhaul
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
An advocate for criminal justice reform is preparing to try again. Last year, Congress passed and President Trump signed a measure easing some of the rules that have put millions of Americans in prison. It was a bipartisan bill, although its name, the FIRST STEP Act, suggested how modest it was. This deal included only a few of the many ideas for rolling back the crackdown on crime that has swelled the prison population in the U.S. since the 1980s.
Senator Cory Booker has wrapped more of those ideas into a second bill that he plans to introduce today. Why do users of crack cocaine, who are often black, spend so much more time in prison than users of powder cocaine, who are more often white? Well, Booker wants to just equalize the sentences. The New Jersey senator and presidential candidate also wants to legalize marijuana.
CORY BOOKER: From the time I was a kid, growing up as the only black family in a white community, you begin to be - realize how our justice system is so broken and treats people differently based upon geography, based upon the color of their skin. And seeing in college at Stanford use of drugs pretty significantly - and then you see in neighborhoods like the one I live in now, where - you know, we have a country where there's no difference between blacks and whites for using marijuana, for example, or using drugs. But the arrest rates are multiple times higher for African-Americans.
INSKEEP: A lot of this measure seems to be aimed at - maybe covering up is not the word you would like to use - but erasing criminal records. You want to seal criminal records. You want to tell many employers they shouldn't ask about someone's criminal record.
BOOKER: For the biggest employer in the country, which is the federal government and federal contractors, we would say that you don't have to disclose your previous conviction until right before you get the job offer, when you can get a conditional job offer, which would increase the employment of people with criminal records dramatically because when you have to check a box at the beginning, your resume gets thrown away. And so you have people getting stopped from getting economic opportunity just because of a past arrest or conviction. So...
INSKEEP: But the employer eventually finds out?
BOOKER: Yeah, of course. I think it's right for the employer to know. But let the person go all the way through the process until the point where they're being offered a job. It creates more momentum towards hiring and more of a chance that that person's actually get a job.
INSKEEP: Why do you include in this legislation a provision that would allow felons to vote in every state in the country?
BOOKER: You know, these felony disenfranchise laws - if you go back to some of the state legislative debates that were happening after Reconstruction, they were designed to stop African-Americans from voting. These have racist roots to these laws. And it gets to a point now where you can see the fruit of that poison tree - is that you have some counties in America where 1 out of 4 African-Americans can't vote. And remember; the overwhelming number of charges are for nonviolent drug offenses.
So here, you've served your time, and now you're going to have 10, 20, 40, 50, 60 years more as an adult. And you're told that your citizen rights have been stripped from you? This is a way, I think, that poor people especially - low-income people are being stripped of their democratic power.
INSKEEP: Let's stipulate that there may be bipartisan support for this idea. Florida, last year, of course voted to re-enfranchise people convicted of felonies. This was a state that elected a Republican governor. And still, the electorate voted for this. Nevertheless, I'm assuming that if you could have gotten that into the last criminal justice bill, you would have.
INSKEEP: Do you think you're going to persuade Republicans to sign onto a measure that would affect people who are disproportionately black and some Republicans may think they're disproportionately Democratic?
BOOKER: You know, I'd still believe, as we saw in Florida, that - you know, we make this presumption that just because someone is a different party than you that they're a bad person. We are a nation of conscience. And I found partners on the other side of the aisle who agree with me on these issues, and we can build from there.
(SOUNDBITE OF UGLY DUCKLING SONG, "BANG FOR THE BUCK")
INSKEEP: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker plans to introduce a criminal justice reform bill today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.