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What the Republican Candidates Said About Criminal Justice Reform at the Second Debate

| September 21, 2015

On Wednesday, the top eleven Republican Presidential candidates met at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for the second Republican debate. The over three-hour marathon discussion focused largely on quibbles between the different candidates and differences of opinion on some issues. However, at the latter-end of the debate, a question was presented to Senator Rand Paul regarding marijuana legalization that opened a somewhat more broad discussion regarding criminal justice reform.

Below are the comments each participating candidate made

Senator Rand Paul

Senator Paul was asked a question regarding recent comments by Governor Chris Christie that he would enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have recently legalized it, specifically Colorado. Senator Paul had this to say:

“I think one of the great problems, and what American people don’t like about politics, is hypocrisy. People have one standard for others and not for them — for themselves.


There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school [speaking of Jeb Bush], and yet the people going to — to jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.


I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude. I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I’m a fan of the drug courts which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail.


But the bottom line is the states. We say we like the 10th Amendment, until we start talking about this. And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities.


Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time.


So I don’t think that the federal government should override the states. I believe in the 10th Amendment and I really will say that the states are left to themselves.”

Governor Jeb Bush

Governor Jeb Bush had admitted that he smoked marijuana in his youth. Senator Paul’s remarks regarding a “prominent example of someone on stage” who had smoked marijuana (Bush) led to the former Florida Governor to respond:

“So, 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it. I’m sure that other people might have done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom’s not happy that I just did.


That’s true. And here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. We have — we have a serious epidemic of drugs that goes way beyond marijuana. What goes on in Colorado, as far as I’m concerned, that should be a state decision.


But if you look at the problem of drugs in this — in this society today, it’s a serious problem. Rand, you know this because you’re campaigning in New Hampshire like all of us, and you see the epidemic of heroin, the overdoses of heroin that’s taking place.


People’s families are — are being torn apart. It is appropriate for the government to play a consistent role to be able to provide more treatment, more prevention — we’re the state that has the most drug courts across every circuit in — in — in Florida, there are drug courts to give people a second chance.


That’s the best way to do this.”

Paul took exception to Bush’s record regarding medical marijuana reform when he was Governor of Florida, which led to this exchange:

PAUL: “But let me respond. The thing is, is that in Florida, Governor Bush campaigned against medical marijuana. That means that a small child like Morgan Hintz (ph) that has seizures is day, is failing on non-traditional medications, is not allowed to use cannabis oil.


And if they do that in Florida, they will take the child away, they will put the parents in jail. And that’s what that means if you’re against allowing people use medical marijuana, you’ll actually put them in jail.”


BUSH: “No, you’re wrong — you’re wrong about this.”


PAUL: And actually, under the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you do, don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail. I don’t think that’s fair. And I think we need to acknowledge it, and it is hypocritical to still want to put poor people in jail…”


BUSH: “I don’t want to put poor people in jail, Randy.”


PAUL: “Well, you vote — you oppose medical marijuana…”


BUSH: “Here’s the deal. No, I did not oppose when the legislature passed the bill to deal with that very issue. That’s the way to solve this problem.


Medical marijuana on the ballot was opened up, there was a huge loophole, it was the first step to getting to a (inaudible) place. And as a citizen of Florida, I voted no.”


PAUL: “But that means you’ll put people in jail.”

Governor Chris Christie

Governor Christie was next to speak on corrections reform:

“You know, I enjoy the interplay. Thank you, gentlemen.


I’ll just say this, first off, New Jersey is the first state in the nation that now says if you are non-violent, non-dealing drug user, that you don’t go to jail for your first offense. You go to mandatory treatment.


You see, Jake, I’m pro-life. And I think you need to be pro-life for more than just the time in the womb. It gets tougher when they get out of the womb. And when they’re the 16-year-old drug addict in the Florida county lockup, that life is just as precious as the life in the womb.


And so, that’s why I’m for rehabilitation, why I think the war on drugs has been a failure.


But I’ll end with this. That doesn’t mean we should be legalizing gate way drugs. And if Senator Paul thinks that the only victim is the person, look at the decrease in productivity, look at the way people get used and move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug, it is not them that are the only victims. Their families are the victims too, their children are the victims too, and their employers are the victims also.


That’s why I’ll enforce the federal law, while you can still put an emphasis on rehabilitation, which we’ve done in New Jersey.”

Senator Paul responded to Governor Christie’s remarks to which Governor Christie replied:

PAUL: “Understand what they’re saying. if they’re going to say we are going to enforce the federal law against what the state law is, they aren’t really believing in the Tenth Amendment.


Governor Christie would go into Colorado, and if you’re breaking any federal law on marijuana, even though the state law allows it, he would put you in jail. If a young mother is trying to give her child cannabis oil for medical marijuana for seizure treatment, he would put her in jail, if it violates federal law.


I would let Colorado do what the Tenth Amendment says. This power — we were never intended to have crime dealing at the federal level. Crime was supposed to be left to the states. Colorado has made their decision. And I don’t want the federal government interfering and putting moms in jail, who are trying to get medicine for their kid…”


CHRISTIE: “And Senator Paul knows that that’s simply not the truth.


In New Jersey, we have medical marijuana laws, which I supported and implemented. This is not medical marijuana. There’s goes as much — a further step beyond. This is recreational use of marijuana.


This is much different. And so, while he would like to use a sympathetic story to back up his point, it doesn’t work. I’m not against medical marijuana. We do it in New Jersey. But I’m against the recreational use against marijuana.


If he wants to change the federal law, get Congress to pass the law to change it, and get a president to sign it.”


PAUL: “May I respond? May I respond?”


TAPPER (Moderator): “Yes, Senator Paul.”


PAUL: “Here is the thing, he doesn’t want to make it about medical marijuana, but what if New Jersey’s medical marijuana contradicts the federal law? He’s saying he’ll send the federal government in, and he will enforce the federal law. That’s not consistent with the Tenth Amendment. It is not consistent with states’ rights. And it is not consistent with the conservative vision for the country.”


“I don’t think we should be sending the federal police in to arrest a mother and separate them from their child for giving a medicine to their child for seizures.”

Carly Fiorina

Ms. Fiorina was the last candidate to speak on criminal justice reform:

“I very much hope I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing.


My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction. So, we must invest more in the treatment of drugs.


I agree with Senator Paul. I agree with states’ rights. But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.


We do — sorry, Barbara. We do need — we do need criminal justice reform. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related. It’s clearly not working.


But we need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people. I know this sadly from personal experience.”

Although only a brief discussion that involved four out of the eleven candidates, it was positive to see the topic touched on as it was completely glossed over in the first debate.

With a crowded field, criminal justice reform could be a topic that allows a candidate to separate themselves from the pack. As Jake Tapper, moderator of the debate said, the legalization of marijuana question was one of the hottest issues that was being asked by the public during the debate on social media.

Criminal justice reform is obviously on the minds of the American people and it’s likely this topic will play more of a role in subsequent debates.

Photo: The Atlantic


GREG GLOD  is a Policy Analyst for Right on Crime as well as the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Based in Austin, Texas, Glod is an attorney who began his legal career as a law clerk for the Honorable Judge Laura S. Kiessling on the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He subsequently practiced at a litigation firm in Annapolis, Maryland before joining Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In 2010, he graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with B.A. degrees in Crime, Law, and Justice and Political Science. In 2013, Glod received his J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law.