SALAMA, Guatemala — Just before departing for the rural town here where he performed charity eye surgeries over several days, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) caused a stir with an op-ed in Time about the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, calling for the police to be “demilitarized” and saying race skews the application of criminal justice in the U.S.
In an interview, he elaborated on his article and responded to critics on the right whom he said had misconstrued what he wrote.
“If you look at crime statistics, many people look at the crime statistics and say that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately incarcerated with regard to what percentage of time they’re in for,” Paul said. “With drug statistics, they say blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, but the prisons are three out of four people are black or brown. So it’s not on purpose. It’s not a purposeful racism. It’s an inadvertent racial sort of outcome is what it is.”
In the op-ed, Paul wrote that “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” Another sentence said, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”
The remarks prompted a pushback from critics who said Paul had attributed racial motives to the police officer who shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown after a confrontation about which details remain murky, even after nearly two weeks of national debate on the incident.
For example, the Missouri GOP’s executive director said Paul’s comments were “unhelpful,” and black conservative radio figure Larry Elder said that Paul’s op-ed “lend[s] fuel to this notion that ‘cops are out to get us,'” something Elder argued on Laura Ingraham’s radio show hurts GOP efforts to reach potential black voters.
Paul said he wasn’t accusing the Ferguson police of racism:
No, the point I’m making is that, let’s say you’re African American and you live in our country and see the statistics and see three out of four people in prison are black or brown, and you see whites are using drugs at the same rate, you’d say: ‘Gosh it seems unfair.’ Your perception would be that ‘I’m unfairly being targeted’ when in reality maybe it’s poverty, maybe it’s the police tend to patrol more in one area than another. What I was saying is that it’s impossible for them not to feel [that way], and I think we put the word ‘feel’ for them to feel like they’re not being targeted. But I wasn’t saying that about this particular instance–I have no idea about the specifics of this. But you see how if a black community has a lot of their community in jail for drugs or whatever, that when a young black man is shot while unarmed, you could see how this is something that is just a big example of what is going on.
Regardless of the facts of the case, Paul says, “that’s the perception.”
Paul noted that, while President Obama “has recently started commuting some sentences of people in jail for crack cocaine,” several people “who have 15 and 20-year sentences for crack cocaine are still in jail from even before we” changed the system to lessen the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.
“The disparity used to be 100:1 crack to powder, and five to 10 years ago we changed it to 18:1–they didn’t grandfather in the people from before we changed it,” Paul said. “There are many instances where a white kid goes to jail using powder cocaine and getting out in six months with a good attorney or never going to jail, and then someone with a similar weight of crack cocaine going to jail for 15 years.”
Paul said that when young people go away for such long sentences for nonviolent crimes, they get sucked into the criminal justice system, something that’s nearly impossible to break free from. “How do you get a job when you get out? It’s almost impossible to get a job,” he said. “It all adds together. There are statistics that back up that the criminal justice system and the war on drugs has disproportionately incarcerated Hispanics and African Americans, and that if you are an African American, and you see something happen, you think it’s just one more thing piling on top.”
“I have no idea about the intent about any of the people involved in this, and that ought to be judged by the people,” Paul added. “But I can see why people would be unhappy.”