BALTIMORE—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, referred to the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder as a tragic example as he spoke of justice applied unequally to black and white Americans Tuesday night.
Browder was arrested in 2010, when he was 16, for stealing a backpack—a crime he insisted he did not commit. He was in jail on Rikers Island in New York City for three years, without a conviction. His plight, including brutal beatings by jail guards and other prisoners as well as years in solitary confinement, was chronicled in a 2014 New Yorker story and became a symbol for a broken criminal justice system — one that Paul has invoked frequently on the campaign trail.
“I’ve been telling this story for about a year and a half, two years, and it makes me sad now. I thought about not talking about it or doing the story but I thought that this young man’s memory should help us to try and change things. He died this weekend, he committed suicide,” Paul said. “Even if you’re convicted of a crime, in America for goodness sake, are we going to let people be raped and murdered and pillaged in a prison because they’re convicted? And he wasn’t even convicted.”
The remarks, among the most somber and reflective the Kentucky senator has made on criminal justice, came at a fundraiser dinner for Baltimore County Republicans, only miles away from where protests broke out in the aftermath of the death of another African-American man in police custody.
Paul said when he thought of the odds young black men like Browder were facing, he understood the unrest and frustration.
“I can tell you I didn’t grow up poor, I grew up middle class or upper middle class and this is me learning about how other people have to deal with life,” Paul said. “This young man, 16 years old — imagine how his classmates feel about American justice. Imagine how his parents feel. So the thing is until you walk in someone else’s shoes, I think we shouldn’t say that we can’t understand the anger of people.”
Paul, one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates for criminal justice reform in either party, also spoke of the unequal impact of the war on drugs, noting the over-incarceration of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, another site of unrest over a police killing.
“Am I saying they did nothing wrong and it’s all racism? No,” Paul said. “What I am telling you is that white kids don’t get the same justice.”
While other presidential candidates have reserved their travel to states hosting early nominating contests and those with wealthy donors, Paul has made it a point to campaign in the country’s liberal enclaves, speaking of the need for the Republican Party to appeal to a more diverse swath of voters.
Paul has said one way the GOP could make inroads in by enthusiastically embracing all of the amendments of the Constitution — the right to a trial by jury as much as the right to bear arms — and has described himself as “libertarianish.”