LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — A pair of unlikely allies in the U.S. Senate said they will continue to push the new Republican majority to allow juveniles charged with nonviolent crimes to expunge their criminal records.
Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey said they disagree on most things, but told a forum at Sullivan University on Tuesday their partnership is proof that the country is ready to reform what has become an inadvertently racist criminal justice system.
"There definitely is a bipartisan sort of coming together, right and left. And people say, 'Well, how does the religious right respond to this?' I can take this message to any church in America," Paul told the forum in Louisville via video conference from Washington. "In fact if anything, Christian audiences are coming more and more to believe that we have gone too far."
Paul has spent the last year reaching out to minority voters as he prepares for a possible run for president in 2016. His ideas have included restoring the voting rights of some convicted felons, banning mandatory minimum sentences and eliminating the sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. But his work last year with Booker, who rose to national prominence as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, could help make Paul more appealing to minority voters.
"I feel very fortunate to be in the United States Senate at a time when Sen. Rand Paul is serving because his leadership along with mine and others is going to make a big change," Booker said. "There is a powerful zeitgeist moving through the country right now when I can have, in the last month, conversations with Newt Gingrich, conversations with Grover Norquist and even conversations with people working with the Koch brothers who all have the same passions that I have on this issue."
Paul and Booker introduced the Redeem Act last year, an acronym for the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act. The bill would allow juveniles charged with nonviolent crimes to expunge their criminal records. Most companies ask prospective employees if they have ever been convicted of a felony and many won't hire those who have, citing liability issues.
Louisville resident Greg Duncan, who spoke at the forum, said he lost a good-paying job after a few weeks because his background check showed he had criminal convictions stemming from his time as a teenager when he was a member of a gang.
"Why me? Why can't I have opportunities," he said.
John Rees, former commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said he agrees with most of the proposals outlined in the bill.
"We got way, way too many people in prison that we are not afraid of," he said. "The reality is we've got too many people in prison that we're mad at. We have politicized crime."
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