Booker: “You can tell a lot about a country by who they incarcerate”

By: - February 24, 2019 8:33 pm

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker brought his presidential campaign to Nevada Feb. 24. Photo” Michael Lyle

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s first trip to Nevada since launching his bid for president was all about family. Not just his mother and relatives, who have called Southern Nevada home for years, but what he deemed a larger family — the American people.

“When some of your family is hurting, when some of your family is suffering, you do something about that,” he said.

Speaking to a crowd of about 500 at the job-training organization Nevada Partners, which is located in the predominately African-American community of the historic Westside, Booker framed his message around the disparities and injustices that are hurting people, in particularly people of color, while also making an appeal to what unites people rather than what divides them.

Too many Americans, he said, feel they are being left behind.

People “are dissatisfied that we live in a nation where we have millions of children who have an easier time finding unleaded gasoline than unleaded water,” he said. “We live in a nation where we profess to believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but we lead the developed world in infant mortality rates, maternal mortality rates. If you say you believe in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, how can we have a nation where every day people put aside life-saving medication because they can’t afford it. We are dissatisfied because people work hard, full-time jobs, catch extra shifts where they can, but they still find themselves with more month at the end of their money than money at the end of their month.”

In his time in the Senate, one of the areas Booker has challenged disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly the effects of mandatory-minimum sentences and mass incarceration.

He was one of the original sponsors of the First Step Act, the bipartisan legislation that President Trump signed into law at the end of 2018 that is a modest, but important, effort to ease punitive prison sentences and begin to address mass incarceration at the federal level.

“You can tell a lot about a country by who they incarcerate,” Booker said. “In Russia, it’s political prisoners. In some countries, they lock up journalists. (In America) we lock up our most vulnerable in our society. Disproportionately low-income people. Disproportionately, Americans with mental illness. We lock up people with addictions. We don’t treat their addictions. We have a sexual assault survivor-to-prison pipeline. Eighty-six percent of the women we incarcerate are survivors of sexual assault. We disproportionately incarcerated black and brown people as well.”

Incarceration impacts other aspects of people’s lives, Booker said, from their ability to get loans to accessing the ballot box. But the broken criminal justice system is also connected to failed economic and environmental policies.

“We have over 1,000 jurisdictions where children have twice the blood lead levels than in Flint, Mich.” Booker said. “Just elevated blood lead levels undermines your executive functions and makes it more likely that you’re going to get in trouble. We can’t deal with (criminal justice problems) until we deal with environmental injustice.”

Similarly, economic insecurity in a family can be a catalyst that starts a student down the school-to-prison pipeline.

“When you have families being evicted over a hundred bucks, now they have to pull the kid out of school to go to another school,” he said. “It begins to erode their security and well-being. It is so much more likely that child gets in trouble. The fact they are coming from an economically insecure environment puts them on the pathway of getting in trouble with the police.”

Taking audience questions, Booker talk about expunging records from marijuana convictions, reversing Trump’s ban on transgender service members, the need for universal preschool and climate change.

“Those states (that have legalized marijuana) that had been disproportionately enforcing marijuana laws on communities of color, we need to make sure those tax revenues are reinvested in the communities that have been disproportionately impacted,” he said.

While he didn’t mention the Green New Deal, an ambitious proposal being mulled over in Congress that would aim to address climate change from a multifaceted approach, and which Booker has publicly backed, he said “the planet is in peril and if we do not act aggressively and boldly we will suffer the consequences.”

He also talked about the need for universal preschool, but hasn’t offered solutions on how to pay for it. He added a proposal might include “bringing the corporate tax rate back up.” The tax cuts signed into law by Trump in 217 lowered corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent.

As much as Booker wants to address the circumstances harming everyday Americans, he said a presidency alone won’t fix those issues.

Over and over again, he returned to the theme of uniting Americans and working together to change the direction of the country.

“If this election becomes something small then we will lose the opportunity to create transformative change,” Booker said.  “If this election becomes something small, about demeaning and degrading any American, we may win back the White House but we lose the opportunity to call this country to a revival of civic grace.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.