Merlene Davis: Agreeing with Sen. Rand Paul surprises even me

OK. I'm getting really scared.

Not long ago, I found myself in agreement with Republican strategist Newt Gingrich when he said there are racial inequities in the judicial system. It left me in a position similar to when you jump off a cliff in a nightmare and then suddenly awaken before hitting the rocks below. I hadn't expected such progressive thought from Gingrich.

Now, I'm hearing "Amen," pass my lips as I listen to Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Libertarian Republican and Tea Party poster child who once criticized the Civil Rights Act before coming to his senses.

Paul testified Wednesday at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences," and began espousing principles and values I hadn't heard a Republican utter in a very long time.

He said things like, "If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago. Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The war on drugs has disproportionately affected young black males."

And he said, citing an American Civil Liberties Union report, "The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require binding prison terms of a designated length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes, most often drug offenses. These laws prevent judges from fitting punishment to individual and circumstances.

Paul highlighted several cases, including that of a friend, in which offenders were punished severely for minor offenses. The judges, he said, had no choice.

In a Washington Times op-ed piece he wrote, Paul cited sources that seldom flow positively from the lips of a Republican: the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and Ohio State University Law Professor Michelle Alexander who first coined the judicial system as the new Jim Crow racial caste system.

Paul wrote, "Since mandatory sentencing began, America's prison population has quadrupled, to 2.4 million. America now jails a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country, including China and Iran, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year.

"Drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system's formal control than drug offenders anywhere else in the world. Statistics like these prove that mandatory minimum sentencing has failed our society," he wrote."

On top of all that, Paul hopes to make the restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders a lot easier.

Be still my heart.

In March, Paul joined with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in drafting the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which allows judges to sentence below the established minimum. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

To hear a Republican talk about rights that have been slowly-but-surely yanked from black people never fails to give me heart palpitations. But to hear a sitting Republican senator, one who has sway with his fellow party members, talk about the injustices he has seen leveled on black people, now that can cause a heart attack.

Paul and I still disagree about the benefits of Obamacare and how greatly constituents in his home state would benefit from it. And, even though Paul has cut ties with him, I wasn't comfortable with Paul's selection of a new media director who had publicly voiced arguably racist views. And I'm definitely not in Paul's corner when he says voter ID laws don't negatively affect minorities.

Nevertheless, I do believe Paul really is looking out for the welfare of black federal prisoners, their mandatory minimal sentences, and the semi-automatic restoration of their voting rights.

Jesse Wegman, The New York Times editorial page editor, wrote of Paul, "Whatever you think of Rand Paul or his motives, current and former prison inmates — who are nobody's constituency and possess zero lobbying power — have rarely had as impassioned a champion in Congress."

I must give him credit for that, too.

If he would use some of that influence and passion to affect change in sentencing laws and the restoration of voting rights in his home state, I might consider voting Republican like my dad and my brother did. (Good grief. Did I just say that?)

But if he doesn't, if he is simply trying to win over black voters for a presidential run in 2016, then somebody needs to awaken me quickly.

Those rocks at the bottom of the cliff, the ones made of broken political promises, hurt far too much.

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