Inching closer to presidential run, Paul continues to push for criminal justice reforms

02/20/2015 04:27 PM

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul hopes the new GOP-led Congress will consider a bill he has filed that would lower societal barriers for nonviolent offenders, the Bowling Green Republican said Friday during a forum at Sullivan University.

Kentucky’s junior senator, who is openly considering a presidential campaign next year while frequenting early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa in recent months, continues to stake his claim as an advocate for criminal justice reforms, estimating that half the Senate’s Republican caucus and three-fourths of Democrats in the chamber support similar penal issues.

The REDEEM Act, which Paul sponsored alongside Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, would provide a smoother process for juveniles and nonviolent offenders to seal their criminal records, limit the use of solitary confinement against juvenile detainees, incentivize states to increase the age of criminal liability to 18 and make low-level drug offenders eligible for food stamps and other benefits for low-income citizens.

Paul said he is not someone “who wants to expand and explode all of our federal programs, but at the same time we’re going to exclude people who have a drug conviction who are now trying to make amends.”

“We’re trying to figure out how to make criminal justice fair,” he told more than 100 in attendance at Sullivan University’s Bardstown Road campus.

The REDEEM Act must clear the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the bill’s best chance may come in either a floor amendment or attached to legislation on civil forfeiture, which Paul says has a good shot of clearing the judiciary panel.

If the bill comes to a floor vote, Paul said he believes the legislation has “a reasonable chance” of passing. To that end, Paul will likely need some help from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Half the debate is actually moving this forward and getting it cued up for a vote, so not only Sen. (Chuck) Grassley (an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee), but also Sen. McConnell as well, writing them letters and letting them know that you think we ought to vote on this because he (McConnell) designates the time on whether or not we’ll get a vote,” Paul said, “and I also am able to talk to him too, so I’ll try.”

Speaking to reporters after the event, Paul said he is “leaning towards getting involved” in next year’s presidential race with an announcement by April at the latest, but he must first convince the Republican Party of Kentucky’s 54-member executive committee to change the state GOP’s primary from an election to a caucus.

Paul penned a letter earlier this month asking the committee to meet March 7 in his hometown of Bowling Green to consider the proposal, which would allow him to sidestep a restriction in the Kentucky Constitution on appearing twice on the ballot.

Paul has already announced he will seek a second Senate term in 2016, and he prefers the caucus approach to a costly and time-consuming legal battle, predicting a constitutional court challenge would cost millions and take at least a year to litigate.

“While I’m hopeful and optimistic if I do this I could be the nominee I don’t know that, so really this would eliminate any problems going through a presidential primary if I chose to,” he said.

Paul’s potential moves appear limited to a courtroom if he wins his party’s presidential nomination, however.

The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman reports that the senator’s request for a primary caucus has stirred questions and concerns among RPK’s executive panel, particularly given the possibility that Paul could be forced to choose between running for president or Senate in next fall’s general election.

Paul said his team will broach that subject when necessary, though he said he believes “there are valid constitutional arguments for why states can’t have different rules.”

“Wisconsin, we don’t think, can have a different rule on who can be eligible for office than Kentucky can,” he said. “We think there’s going to be a constitutional argument that the states all have to have the same rules for federal elections.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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