IOWA CITY, Iowa–Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's first speech in Iowa as a presidential candidate was thick with talk of criminal justice reform. He talked about his bill with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker–a name that sparked off applause in the largely young, largely white crowd–that would give states incentives to reduce sentences for young offenders.
"I have bills to make many non-violent drug offenses misdemeanors so as not to permanently damage a kid's work potential," said Paul. "I have a bill with Senator Harry Reid to allow people to get their voting rights back. I have a bill that will guarantee that the government can't take your property without first convicting you of a crime."
Paul often talks about these bills, but later in the speech, he debuted a new line.
"The government ought to leave non-violent offenders alone," said Paul. "If a guy is selling loose cigarettes and not paying the king's ransom in taxes, couldn't we give him a ticket instead of throwing him to the pavement?
That was reference to the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man killed after police confronted him for selling loosies. But how far would Paul take this idea? In a short interview with Bloomberg, Paul explained that some non-violent crimes–non-payment of child support, for example– were not worth sending people to jail over, lest they throw the offender into a downward spiral.
"Even with child support, it’s a good example of how unintended consequences come about," Paul said. "Do I think people should have to pay their child support? Absolutely. If a successful person, like somebody making $100,000 a year, is just spiteful, and not paying their wife and kids for child support, that’s wrong, and maybe they should go to jail. But there is a problem, and this problem creeps up a lot as I’ve met people who live in poverty. Somebody gets a drug conviction. They go to jail. They have kids. And their child support builds up over three years in jail. They get out and they owe $3,000. They’re never going to see $3,000 all at one time in their entire life if we put ‘em back in jail."
Paul was talking about what some have called the "poverty trap" of prison. A man goes to jail for crack cocaine possession; while he's serving out a debt to society, his family grows up fatherless and poor. All Paul was saying that other frowned-upon, illegal activity might be better ticketed than punished with a jail sentence.
"Putting people in jail, particularly poor people–think about it," said Paul. "They can’t get a job, because they’re convicted. Maybe the best job they get is $8 an hour or minimum wage, and then we’re saying you’ve got to pay the $3000 back. So I think there needs to be more understanding of people particularly who live in poverty, of trying to help them pay their child support rather than put them back in jail."
Pressed on what other crimes needed this sort of rethink -- non-payment of taxes, of tickets -- Paul cited the example of Ferguson, Missouri citizens who had been hit with speeding fines, failed to pail them, and had their lives disrupted with criminal charges.
"It’s a big part of the unease across the country, in the sense that in Ferguson, 21,000 people there and 31,000 were given an arrest warrant," Paul said. "So this sort of unease, this unhappiness you’re seeing in some of our cities, and among some of the minority populations, and some of the populations that have a high rate of poverty, is that you’re seeing this unhappiness based on this culture of just fining people. Fines after fines. I think it is a problem."
Asked if student debt should be treated like other debt–i.e., subject to bankruptcy law, Paul pivoted just slightly.
"What I think about when you mention that is that the Department of Education actually has a SWAT team," he said. "A guy a couple years ago was handcuffed, arrested, and held on the floor for hours. It turns out he was the wrong person. It was his wife’s student debt they were looking for. And they put him on the floor. I’ll go on the record saying the department of Education does not need a SWAT team."
Paul had always planned to focus on criminal justice while in Iowa this week. And criminal justice was the subject when Paul got into one last tangle with the press before the end of the news cycle. Guardian reporter Paul Lewis conducted a live Paul interview on Periscope, asking about criminal justice, and the senator blanched when he thought Lewis was interrupting him. (The interview happened in a room crowded with reporters getting one-on-ones with Paul, though Bloomberg arrived just after the Guardian interview.)
"When you stand for president, you get pressed on questions and you understand that," said Lewis. "Last question's about campaign strategy. You gave that speech in that hall and you got a lot of enthusiastic response from people that care about criminal justice. Young people do, Democrats do, liberals do. You're standing for the Republican nomination. All the research shows that Republicans–white Republicans who're going to determine the outcome of this race -- don't think that the criminal law is applied in an unfair way. So how are you going to win the nomination with this..."
Paul interjected. The question, with the wind-up about how Paul should know that the media would press him hard, was exactly the kind that tended to irritate him. But he found a concise answer.
"I think that's incorrect," he said. "think your premise is incorrect. Actually, I think that I can take that message into a white evangelical church anywhere in Iowa and give exactly the same speech and be received well."
Lewis tried to cite some of the aforementioned data. "Washington Post/ABC poll this week," he started. But Paul pointed past him, to where CNN was set up for an interview, and walked off frame. Lewis walked into it.
"We got the interview cut off," Lewis told viewers. "Maybe it was because I was about to push him on the specifics."
At that point, CNN's cameramen adjusted the lights, and the space around Lewis went dark. A media fellow for the Guardian tweeted that "staffers" had turned out the lights; that tweet has been deleted, while the "Paul walks out of interview story" bounced around the web.
"Senator Paul had multiple interviews and the reporter knew we had limited time," said Sergio Gor, Paul's spokesman. "That's why he told the reporter that he had time for one more question. When that question ended, he had to move to his next interview. We did not turn the lights off, that was CNN producers who were taping an interview right after and need a different look for the room."