Sen. Cory Booker’s been anointed the justice reform wonderkind. “Perhaps no issue is more central to the career of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey than criminal justice reform” wrote The New York Times in June, and people seem to believe it.
Booker, however, is not “The Criminal Justice Guy” in the current field of candidates, not by far.
At the Justice Votes 2020 town hall on Oct. 28 in Philadelphia, I asked him if he employs formerly incarcerated people in his office. He was non-committal and dismissive of my questions but implied that he did.
When I followed up with Booker’s campaign press secretary, Sabrina Singh, to verify what he said and ascertain how many people with records work for him, I didn’t merit the courtesy of a reply. I emailed her three times.
Maybe it’s the education of living with criminal masterminds for six years talking, but I sense that Booker’s team doesn’t take me or my question seriously - and that they don’t have one soul with a criminal record on payroll.
It’s not just Booker’s bypassing the question on hiring people with criminal records. He’s refused to back voting rights for people in prison even though they’re citizens and, technically, citizens aren’t supposed to lose their rights even when they misbehave.
I’m not just pushing my opinion here. That’s the law. Unless someone renounces his citizenship, there’s nothing he can do to lose his rights as a citizen, which means that no citizen should ever be deprived of the right to vote, no matter what he does.
Booker took a tone when Daryl Atkinson, a formerly incarcerated lawyer, questioned his position, saying, “I am sorry I will not sacrifice progress on the altar of purity on issues.”
While Booker was part of the team involved in drafting and passing the First Step Act, the prison reform bill signed into law last December that’s led to almost 5,000 people gaining their freedom, most of his justice reform proposals haven’t gone anywhere.
None of Booker’s signature - and of course, highly publicized - proposed bills, like the Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act, Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, the REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment), the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, The Next Step Act of 2019 - even made it out of congressional committee.
Alone, his legislative failures aren’t evidence that Booker’s a hypocrite. It takes others’ agreement to get laws passed, and even the most committed legislator can’t always build consensus.
But combined with his refusing to retain ex-offenders and actively supporting disenfranchisement of citizens, his inability to move the needle betrays his singular stardom in criminal justice.
Booker’s big on voting rights in general. This spring he announced “a new Voting Rights Act” to expand and protect the franchise - for everyone except prisoners. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate to acknowledge the rights of incarcerated citizens. Booker’s justifying his lack of reform bona fides with something that doesn’t exist. It’s a con.
His answer also demonstrates that Booker can’t read a room. The Justice Votes town hall was held in an ancient prison where the felony records attached to attendees numbered at least 100 in my estimation; no one expected purity in that place.
The people present were looking for parity, that Sen. Booker believes they deserve the same rights as he does. But his actions show he’s not down with that idea. If he were, he would have had a staffer with a long criminal record right by his side, prepping his talking points about his plans to let inmates vote.
Booker had neither. I saw. He’s not the guy he’s pretending to be. I won’t sacrifice the truth on the altar of public persona by playing along.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.