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Cory Booker Wants To Help Ex-Offenders Be Economically Productive


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.

Cory Booker was in the political spotlight long before he was sworn in as New Jersey's junior senator in 2014. His first campaign to become mayor of Newark was the focus of an award-winning documentary. Part of his term in that office was chronicled in a television series for the Sundance Channel.

Now that he's in Washington, Senator Booker is creating a reputation as a political bridge builder. His latest collaboration across the aisle is called the Redeem Act. It's an attempt to reform the criminal justice system, and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is its cosponsor.

Senator Cory Booker joins us now to talk about the Redeem Act from his Washington office.

Senator, welcome back to the program.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: It's great to be back, thank you.

LYDEN: So as briefly as you can, tell those who don't know what the Redeem Act calls for please.

BOOKER: Well, it's this understanding that as Americans we have about four to 5% of the globe's population, but 25% of the globe's imprisoned people are costing taxpayers almost a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. We're all paying the expensive of it, and we're undermining our prison systems, our criminal justice system, and people recidivate at an alarming rate. About three out of four people recidivate every five years. So the Redeem Act does very commonsense things that actually empower people to be economically more productive, and to recidivate less, thus saving taxpayers money.

LYDEN: Well, let's look at some of those specifics. What exactly would it do? We know we have a disproportionate prison population. How does this reduce it?

BOOKER: Well, I found out in my days of the mayor of New Jersey's largest city that a lot of folks will come out and want to work, but find it very hard to get a job. There's nonviolent drug offenders, they'll apply for jobs, and suddenly they'll find out that they don't want to be hired because they committed a crime. They'll apply for business licenses, and again, you can't because you committed that nonviolent drug offense. So what it does is it provides a pathway, number one, for sealing of records where you can apply back to a judge for a nonviolent crime. For juveniles, for kids a committed nonviolent crime when they're young, it provides for the automatic sealing of their records. It improves the FBI background checks, which often companies will do. And many people don't realize this, but the 17 million background checks done, many studies say that up to half of those background check results are incomplete or inaccurate, often causing someone to lose a job opportunity because of the mistakes that the FBI background check system made.

It also says, well when young people are incarcerated, let's stop doing practices that some countries even consider torture. One of that practices, specifically, is solitary confinement. Which for young people, over half of the suicides in prisons are happening when a child is in solitary confinement.

LYDEN: I also wanted to focus in on another change known as Ban the Box. Could you explain what that is please?

BOOKER: Sure. It's many, many states and localities, including New Jersey, are saying that - wait a minute, for jobs that have nothing to do with whether a person committed a nonviolent drug offense or not, why are we still asking that question? Remember, the last three presidents of the United States have admitted in one way or another to doing a nonviolent drug offense. In other words, smoking marijuana or something like that. And, America hired those people for the top job in the land. Why do we have a lot of jobs that might have nothing to do where even the use of drugs would have an impact, especially if it's was five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Why are even asking that question?

So this bill doesn't specifically have anything in it for Ban the Box. But I'm encouraged by that movement that's going on around the country because again, this is about giving people the chance who've really paid their price, who've served their time. Giving them a chance to be economically productive again.

One of the things (unintelligible) where we stop people from getting food stamps. We stop people from getting Pell grants. We stop people from getting a lot of things that might happen that could help them stay on their feet, or better their education, or better their ability to be economically productive.

LYDEN: Let me ask you about that though. By ending barriers that keep ex-offenders from benefits like food stamps or subsidized housing. In this political climate a lot of these safety net programs, as you know, are really vulnerable. Do you have any concern that by adding former offenders to these programs could endanger the programs for everyone?

BOOKER: Well, no. I - I don't. Especially because if you start to appeal to people's sort of economic logic, Conservatives and Democrats have a strong feeling of this idea of fairness, redemption, and in fact, this idea that, hey we should try to help people economically be productive and contribute. There's a lot of folks who are beginning to say, why are we over-punishing somebody, especially compared to some other crimes that might even be violent? Where those kind of bans never take place. We have, in many ways, overreached when it comes to drug laws and caused many of the very problems that we were hoping to solve.

LYDEN: Your partner on this legislation is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who's a potential candidate for president in 2016. He's got quite a history of controversial statements about civil rights, and I'm just wondering, as one of only two African American senators, are you concerned that his work with you might be used to obscure his record on race?

BOOKER: You know, the urgency's for me in solving problems now, and not worrying about the next election, or in this case the election after the next election. I really came down here to focus on trying to move the bar substantively in important policy areas that will ultimately empower people in my state and our nation.

LYDEN: You two have worked together on a couple of things, I believe.

BOOKER: Yeah. You know, yet another common sense thing, we just said is that a lot of states right now are passing medical marijuana laws, making marijuana a medicine available for people that are very, very sick. States have made that decision. And the federal government, in my opinion, shouldn't be going in and prosecuting people who are abiding by state law and using medical marijuana to help them with their disease.

LYDEN: Please don't take this the wrong way Senator, but just looking at a couple of the headlines with you two, is it a budding romance bromance, now that you're on Capitol Hill?

BOOKER: (Laughing) You know, I was one of those Americans that was very frustrated with looking at Washington and seeing too much partisanship. And so I'll work with anybody down here, if they share, sort of, my ideas about how to make lives - life better in New Jersey and our nation. And so Rand Paul and I have a lot of things we disagree on. I could write a dissertation on our disagreements. But I'm searching for common ground, and with him I found a lot when it comes to reform work, criminal justice system, saving taxpayer dollars, and empowering people, many whom I know, to be successful in life.

LYDEN: Senator Cory Booker, Democrat in New Jersey, joins us by phone in his office in Washington on Capitol Hill. Senator, thank you so very much again.

BOOKER: Thank you so much. And, thanks for focusing so much on this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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