Recognized as a national leader in criminal-justice reform, Senator Cory Booker has spoken about the issue from seemingly every vantage point possible. He has openly decried the growth of mass incarceration. He has written emotionally about the burden of a criminal record. He has called for the end of juvenile solitary confinement. He has preached the gospel of jail reform on social media. He has even enlisted a music superstar to the cause. But he has rarely spoken about it from a point of view that is so intimate as to be taken for granted: as a black man living in today’s America. On the phone one recent afternoon, I asked him to speak frankly about what being a black man, a black senator, and a black leader in the era of mass injustice meant to him. (This conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: You have served on the Newark City Council; you’ve been the city’s mayor; you very famously lived in “the projects.” How does your experience inform what you bring to the call for criminal-justice reform?
Cory Booker: For me, this is not an abstract issue. It’s not hypothetical. It’s not me looking at data. When I talk about these issues, I think about real people. People from my community, from my building, from my neighborhood. And I’ve seen how the broken criminal-justice system can really devastate people’s lives. I’ve seen the desperation of people when they want to do the right thing after they come home from prison, like get a job—they’re willing to do any type of work. I’ve had people grab me, pleading with me to help them find employment so they wouldn’t have to go back to those nonviolent drug crimes that got them in trouble in the first place.