Cory Booker Is Now the Senate's Highest Profile Advocate for Criminal Justice Reform

Will he actually accomplish anything?

Image
REUTERS

Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Elizabeth Warren all showed up in Washington, D.C., ready to rumble. Warren, elected in November 2012, went to war with student lenders almost immediately. Paul, elected in 2010, and Cruz, elected in 2012, brought sustained spotlight to their pet issues -- drones and Obamacare, respectively. 

Based on his larger-than-life time as Newark mayor, I expect Senator-elect Cory Booker won't wait for permission to do the same. And hopefully, criminal justice reform will be one of his big topics. A clue that it might make the list? Booker's campaign released several memos throughout his Senate race, but one in particular stood out for its scope and vision: "Reforming America's Criminal Justice System: Refocusing on Delivering Results, Aligning with Our Values, and Reducing the Burden on Taxpayers."

Criminal justice reform is the kind of thing a big-city mayor would see as important. This is especially true for Booker, whose most famous (and contested) personal anecdotes star victims and survivors of the drug war. 

"One of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars in our society today can be found in a criminal justice system in serious need of reform," Booker writes in the introduction to his memo. "As mayor of Newark, I have watched as my police arrest, re-arrest, and then re-arrest again, sending the same person for another trip through a revolving door system that not only largely fails to rehabilitate, but too often makes re-offending commonplace and most definitely is not helping to make our communities safer."

Booker's ideas for prison and justice reform reflect the larger, conservative-led movement to put fewer people in prison. Per his memo, Booker wants to:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimums for drug crimes
  • Divert non-violent drug offenders from prison to drug courts and other "problem-solving" courts
  • Eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine 
  • Increase funding for better prison education, prison drug treatment, and prisoner re-entry 
  • Make sure that prisoners are put in facilities as close to their families as is possible 
  • Reduce the cost of calling home for prisoners 

Booker's more radical ideas—a federal ban on felon disenfranchisement, decriminalizing marijuana, and ending the use of private prisons—don't yet have advocates in the Senate. But they're increasingly popular at the state level. 

Criminal justice is also an issue on which Booker would have practically no one to upstage him. Sure, Senator Rand Paul has pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing reform, and Senator Patrick Leahy is clearly amenable to liberalizing marijuana laws. But Booker's knack for making front-page news might draw attention to these important issues, and make him a star too. 

Top image: U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker delivers a speech during his campaign's election night event in Newark, New Jersey, October 16, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz 

About the Author