Cory Booker Takes Justice Reform Personally

The outspoken senator reflects on what being black means in his quest to fix the criminal-justice system.

Mel Evans / AP

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.

For me, a lot of this is very personal, because I connect it with real folks I’ve met on my journey. Then I realize that this has just multiplied and multiplied in every state of our country and that good people are being ground into a bad system, often because the system preys disproportionately on the most vulnerable people—poor folks, mentally ill folks, addicted folks, and minorities.

Lantigua-Williams: What do you mean the system “preys” on them?

Booker: In college and [the upper-class community] where I grew up, people violated drug laws, but the criminal-justice system didn’t prey upon them. Yet, you see a much different reality in poor areas, where people who are doing a lot of the same behaviors are much more likely to be caught. There’s no difference between blacks and whites in dealing or using drugs, but blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for it. So clearly the system, as it functions now, disproportionately focuses on poor minority folks, mentally ill folks, and disabled folks.

Lantigua-Williams: Do you think that the system was designed to be effective in targeting this particular population?

Booker: In some ways there are clearly aspects of this that—I don’t know about designed—but that are obviously going to have a racially disproportionate impact, like the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. Clearly, that was going to have a different effect on the poor versus the well-off. It was going to have a different effect on minority communities more often than nonminority communities. There are aspects of the system that are clear, but there’s also, as I’ve learned, something called “implicit racial bias”—which we all have, black or white—and how that often affects decisions. If you have a black defendant and a white defendant who are both convicted of the same crime, the black defendant could be more likely to end up getting a longer sentence or the mandatory minimum—whatever the cause, whether it was intended to be so, designed to be so, or just ended up being so. We know we have tools and abilities to do something about it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Lantigua-Williams: When you say, “We know,” I think that pronoun might not apply to everyone. Particularly, it may not apply to some of your colleagues who don’t know, who haven’t had the personal experiences that you’ve had, who haven’t lived in the areas that are deeply impacted. How do you translate your collective knowledge when you’re behind closed doors and trying to convince fellow legislators that this is right, that this is what “we” should be doing?

Booker: First of all, I really appreciate the question because it’s important to talk about it because the “we” is actually bigger than most people think. That’s been the encouraging thing about my time in the Senate ... We’ve been able to get a bigger and bigger coalition than many people might have imagined ... “We” is actually much bigger. More directly to your question, I find that no matter where a person’s coming from, I can talk to them about their own values and how this broken criminal-justice system is a violation of their values.

Lantigua-Williams: What do you think your party or the Republican Party can do to bring more people into the halls of justice and the halls of government who can speak to these truths?

Booker: I push diversity around here a lot. Even in the Democratic Caucus I’ve been pushing for more diversity on staffs for senators. More diversity in the kind of Senate candidates who are running and get the party line. I think that having gender diversity, race diversity, even diversity of religion here is a very positive thing. We’re a diverse country, and our leadership should reflect that.