LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul drew a favorable response Monday in a mostly black Louisville neighborhood as the tea party favorite promoted the ideas of giving judges more sentencing flexibility, restoring voting rights for felons and offering tax breaks to lure businesses into struggling communities.
The Kentucky Republican, who is considering a presidential campaign in 2016, attended a community meeting in his latest visit to neighborhoods in western Louisville — a Democratic stronghold. Paul has urged the GOP to reach out to a broader electorate by connecting with voters who have shunned the party in the past.
Paul spoke with a group of ministers and community activists during a meeting that lasted more than an hour. The senator told the group at the Plymouth Community Renewal Center that the "War on Drugs" unfairly targeted blacks.
"We went crazy on the 'War on Drugs,'" the libertarian-leaning senator said. "Drugs aren't good. We should have some laws. ... We have to figure out how to go forward, so changing those laws is important."
Paul criticized federal mandatory minimum penalties that he said have clogged prisons with non-violent drug offenders. Blacks make up a disproportionately high number of those inmates, he said.
"We have people in jail for life for non-violent drug crimes," he said. "I think this is a crime, in and of itself."
The first-term senator is a leading sponsor behind legislation that would give federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing. The measure is scheduled to be reviewed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing later this week.
"Mandatory minimums have trapped a lot of people, made them felons, made it hard for them to get jobs, for non-violent crimes," Paul said. "I would just as soon take some of these non-violent crimes and make them misdemeanors so you don't get in that trap."
Paul said he's also considering legislation that would restore voting rights for non-violent felons of federal crimes. The bill is still in draft form, he said, but the restoration of rights would apply to non-violent offenders who haven't committed other crimes for perhaps five years.
Paul said such a bill would especially be aimed at people who committed drug offenses as young adults — which he referred to as a "youthful mistake." Such offenders pay for those indiscretions for decades to come, he said.
"I think the biggest problem right now with voting rights is ... not being allowed to vote because the law says you can never vote," he said.
Some participants in the discussion said they thought five years would be too long to wait for a restoration of rights.
Don Smith, among the participants, said non-violent felony offenders are unable to put their lives back together years after getting out of jail. They have difficulty landing jobs and finding places to live. Another participant, Alonzo Malone, said such felons pay taxes but can't vote.
"You're still held hostage," Smith said.
In Kentucky, Democratic state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment for years that would automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons who have served their sentences. The measure has cleared the Democratic-controlled House but stalled in the GOP-led Senate.
Paul told reporters on Monday he would talk with Republican state Senate leaders about the issue. He said he would be willing to testify on the issue before state lawmakers.
On another topic, Paul said he's working on creating "economic freedom zones" that would offer federal tax breaks to businesses that locate in economically distressed areas.