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Rand Paul accidentally proposed legalizing murder

We knew Rand Paul had a pretty deep commitment to ending mass incarceration. But his speech announcing a 2016 run for president might have promised something more radical than even he would want: legalizing every type of crime, including murder and assault.

And while it's clear that's not what Paul actually wants to do, the line illustrates an important difference between Paul and many criminal-justice reformers on the left about how to fix racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Paul said that in his vision for America, "Any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed." The problem is that that describes pretty much every law that incarcerates a lot of people in America — the nonviolent drug offenses Paul often rails against, sure, but also violent crimes and property crimes.

The majority of people in prison in the US are doing time in state prisons, and most of them have been convicted of violent crimes. But across every single category of crime that the Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes data for, non-Hispanic whites make up a smaller percentage of the prison population than they do of the nation at large.

Just take a glance at this chart. The bar at left shows the percentage of non-Hispanic white Americans: 62.6 percent. None of the other bars across the chart for white prisoners comes close to that high.

As president, of course, Paul would only have influence over federal prisons — and a majority of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, which seems more in line with what Paul wants to repeal. But the data on federal prisoners isn't as good as the data on state prisoners. Federal data does show, however, that the prisoners released in 2013 across all offense categories were disproportionately black and Hispanic — and since African Americans tend to get longer prison sentences for any type of federal crime than whites, that indicates that every category of federal offense also disproportionately imprisons people of color, as well.

It's likely that Paul will clear up this talking point as he polishes his presidential campaign. But it illustrates that as much as Paul's emphasis on criminal justice reform might overlap with African-American voters' priorities, his diagnosis of the problem is different. Paul genuinely does think too many laws create the opportunity for racial disparities in the criminal justice system — that's why he blamed bans on selling loose cigarettes for the death of Eric Garner. Many African Americans and liberals, on the other hand, think the laws aren't necessarily the problem, but the way they're being enforced and policed is.

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