Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, is leading the effort to reform federal mandatory minimum sentencing policies in the Senate, and is scheduled to testify before a panel of lawmakers Wednesday morning.
The tea party-backed Paul also has used his support for reforms to build bridges with African-American voters, who are disproportionately affected by the laws. It's a savvy move for someone whose party has struggled to gain ground with minority voters.
During a meeting with ministers and grassroots activists Monday in western Kentucky, Paul previewed the testimony he is expected to give before the Senate Judiciary Committee. People serving lifetime sentences for non-violent drug crimes, he said, "is a crime in and of itself," according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
"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."
Additionally, Paul said he might pursue federal legislation to grant non-violent felons voting rights. Some states already allow felons to vote, but Paul's potential bill would apply across the country.
"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, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
Paul made a similar pitch earlier this year during an April 10 speech at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
"Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased - that they are the new Jim Crow, but to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point," he said at the time. "They are unfair to everyone, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences."
The fate of mandatory minimum sentence reform is murky. The laws have traditionally been supported by tough-on-crime Republicans and Paul's efforts to reform them could lead to a ripe policy debate during a presidential primary. But if he became his party's standard-bearer, Paul would be in a better position to make the case to African-Americans that he's got something to offer them as a national leader.