JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker urged a "national conversation" on legalizing marijuana as he presented a wish list of reforms for the nation's criminal justice system Wednesday, including ending minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and moving away from privately run prisons.
"The gross daily waste of dollars inside our criminal justice system is rarely discussed and it's time that it was," the Newark mayor said during a news conference at the Metropolitan AME Zion Church. "Mass incarceration represents an ever-growing expenditure of taxpayer dollars producing failed results."
Booker struck on a theme of racial inequality as he spoke on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at a church were King also spoke in the weeks before his 1968 assassination.
Booker said crime statistics show a virtual merry-go-round for minority youths: they are incarcerated at far greater frequency than their white counterparts despite similar drug usage patterns, then are cycled in and out of a prison system that doesn't provide treatment or education opportunities that could keep them from re-offending. The cycle often ends in death: Eighty-five percent of murder victims in Newark have been arrested 10 times or more, Booker said.
"Our police are arresting the same people over and over," he said.
Non-violent drug offenders comprise the majority of inmates in state jails nationwide and their numbers have increased 13-fold since 1980, according to Booker. More than half of all drug arrests are for marijuana, he said, with blacks three times more likely as whites to be arrested.
While not explicitly calling for marijuana to be legalized, Booker urged a national dialogue about legalization that "puts aside demagoguery and fear-mongering."
His other proposals include reforming drug laws to divert non-violent, lower-level offenders into treatment programs rather than have them subjected to mandatory minimum prison sentences; federal support for education and drug-treatment programs for inmates; ending the use of private prisons; federal investment in prisoner re-entry programs that focus on jobs, and prohibiting public employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history before the interview phase.
Booker decried the trend toward prison privatization in the U.S., saying that attaching a profit motive to imprisoning people "should be troubling to the spirit of America."
Steve Lonegan, Booker's Republican opponent, didn't immediately comment on Booker's statements Wednesday. In an email Tuesday he cited statistics showing murders in Newark increased 40 percent from 2008 to 2011 and said Booker "cannot be allowed to do to America what he has done to Newark."