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Exclusive: Booker and Paul join forces to reform war on drugs

Sens. Rand Paul and Cory Booker are pushing a new bipartisan bill to reform criminal background checks and the juvenile justice system.

Condemning a war on drugs they call excessive, counterproductive and discriminatory, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, are pushing a new bipartisan bill to reform criminal background checks and the juvenile justice system.

The senators say their bill -- the REDEEM Act -- will cut the cost and stigma of non-violent drug offenses by limiting how long criminal records stick to ex-convicts.

Under current law, ex-convicts must answer employer questions about past convictions. That rule has major effects on the labor marker -- even for low-level offenses, a criminal record makes many job applicants far less employable. Studies show the impact increases unemployment and disproportionately hinders poor and minority communities.

The senators' legislation aims to counter that trend by offering some non-violent offenders a second chance.

It would seal criminal records for teenage offenders, while adults could apply to have their records expunged. Judges would review those applications, under the proposal, by balancing an offender's interest in "employment" against the public's interest in "knowledge and safety." And when ex-offenders win, they would get something pretty rare under federal law – a do-over.

"The problem really of the war on drugs is taking a lot of people who make youthful mistakes and it's punishing them for a lifetime."'

The bill says that when a crime is expunged, it will simply "be treated as if it never occurred."

Paul, who has backed several measures to limit punishment for non-violent offenses, says that approach is crucial if the U.S. wants to truly rehabilitate offenders and break the cycle of recidivism.

"The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record," Paul told PBS' "NewsHour" Tuesday. "People can't get a job because they have to check off a box saying they're a felon," he said this week, "I want people to work." 

There are certainly a range of rights and government benefits denied to ex-offenders, including voting rights, government jobs and public assistance. 

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, denies public assistance to many ex-offenders. The Paul-Booker bill would reverse that policy for non-violent offenders. (It restores welfare benefits and food stamps for people who complete substance abuse treatment.)

Both senators also emphasize the racial disparities at play. Black and white Americans use pot at similar rates, but blacks are almost four times as likely to face arrest for pot. While 13% of the nation is black, black Americans comprise 45% of inmates serving time for drug offenses.

Booker, the fourth black senator elected since Reconstruction ended in 1877, has spoken out about both the racial disparities at play and the overuse of harsh sentences for Americans who commit low-level, non-violent crimes.

"The majority of our criminals that we lock up are non-violent offenders," he said in the "NewsHour" interview, "we've got to start figuring out ways to empower them to succeed."

The legislation would also roll back two harsh practices in the treatment of minors. It discourages states from trying some teenagers as adults, a practice that has increased even as the rates of violent crime by juveniles are at a 25-year-low. And it would provide the first national ban on solitary confinement for children.

In the U.S., solitary confinement has proven increasingly controversial. Last year, a United Nations human rights expert concluded that the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement can amount to torture.

Congress has been slow to act on most non-emergency legislation this year, but aides to both senators say criminal justice is emerging as a rare area of bipartisan agreement. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed reforms to mandatory minimums on a bipartisan vote earlier this year – a change backed by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder – and this month the entire House of Representatives backed a bipartisan bill to ease banking access for marijuana sales that are legal at the state level.

For more reporting on criminal justice, visit Ari Melber's MSNBC series on racial inequities in the law, Presumed Guilty.