Last Thursday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) criticized Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, claiming she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are “proud” to have incarcerated a “whole generation of young black men.” He then took aim at the former Secretary of State’s recent call to reform the criminal justice system, deriding it as a calculated political move in response to his own advocacy for sentencing reform.
Ultimately, Sen. Paul turned a legitimate criticism of Clinton’s past policy positions into a blatantly political soundbite, prioritizing politics over moving an important conversation forward.
To be fair, Sen. Paul’s continuing advocacy for criminal justice reform is commendable. It’s especially refreshing to see a Republican candidate identify inner-city poverty as a major underlying issue. However, for all his rhetoric about helping struggling black communities, Sen. Paul’s typically conservative economic policies — a flat tax, major spending cuts, and vast deregulation — would only exacerbate poverty in these communities.
Sen. Paul’s overall criticism of President Bill Clinton’s policies — and then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s support — is legitimate. In 1994 President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control Act, a $30 billion bill that, among other measures, incentivized states to impose harsher prison sentences, and accelerated the rate of prison construction. He also opposed efforts to equalize sentences for powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
These actions, combined with tougher three-strikes sentencing laws adopted in over 20 states, led to huge increases in the prison population, inflicting tremendous harm on poor, black communities across the nation. President Clinton has since admitted these policies were unwise, saying that he overreacted to the high crime rates of the early 1990s.
Mrs. Clinton’s views have also evolved in response to new evidence regarding the relationship between incarceration and crime. In the Senate, she co-sponsored a bill to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. As a candidate in 2008 she advocated for a number of reforms to reduce the size of the prison population. Criminal justice reform is one of the most salient issues in In her current campaign.
Just after the riots in Baltimore, in perhaps the most impressive speech from any of the 2016 presidential candidates so far, Clinton called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration.” Clinton forcefully condemned racial inequities in both the criminal justice system and society. She advocated for body cameras on all officers and a halting of the militarization of police forces.
Like Sen. Paul, Clinton also critically tied these issues to the lack of economic opportunity for residents of poor communities. “We can’t separate out the unrest we see in the streets from the cycles of poverty and despair that hollow out those neighborhoods,” she said.
While Clinton and Paul seem to be on the same page regarding the ills of the criminal justice system, and both agree that intergenerational poverty plays a major role in exacerbating these problems, only Clinton has a legitimate solution for fixing the underlying economic disparity.
Sen. Paul is essentially advocating the same failed economic policies Republicans have trumpeted for decades. They argue, without any empirical justification, that tax cuts and deregulation will result in a sustained economic boom, helping all citizens, and that any public spending efforts to alleviate poverty will result in economic disaster.
In reality, Sen. Paul’s policies would benefit exactly whom you might expect: corporations and the super rich. Far from creating an economic boom, these actions would just further increase the already devastating level of economic inequality in America.
On the other hand, Clinton and her fellow Democratic candidates are advocating policies that will actually help poor communities. Public investments in infrastructure would provide millions of unemployed Americans with middle class jobs. Simple improvements in education, like free pre-kindergarten for every child in the country would have huge positive economic effects.
Sen. Paul is undertaking an admirable cause to fix the criminal justice system, and he’s entirely right to focus on restoring economic opportunity to struggling black communities.
But don’t believe for a second that his policies can actually achieve these noble ends.