WASHINGTON - Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) delivered an impassioned speech on race and the justice system on the Senate floor Wednesday, railing against inequities and saying, "Our legal system is not a justice system."
Speaking to the unrest that has roiled much of the country following decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, Booker said those reactions are about more than the two incidents.
"It is a reflection of a deeper anguish, an unfinished American business that has lasted for decades," Booker said.
In nearly 20 minutes of remarks, Booker, often stepping from the lectern into the aisle, decried incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos, and the lasting consequences of minor drug convictions. He said disparities in law enforcement defy the nation's founding principles.
He said that in his boyhood, his parents coached him on how to act around police, "how I should speak and talk, what I should do with my hands," for fear of how he would be treated compared with "other Americans."
Issues of race are rarely raised in such stark terms on the chamber's floor. Booker, one of two African Americans in the Senate, has often spoken about change in the justice system, but had not used such a high-profile platform, or spoken so pointedly, in his brief Senate tenure. Few other lawmakers have spoken out so forcefully, even as protests have taken hold in Philadelphia and many other cities.
"What is anguishing so many," Booker said, is "the applications of this legal system in unequal ways to different portions of our population."
He pointed to an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population over the last 30 years, saying "over-criminality anguishes this nation, aggravates divisions," and costs taxpayers.
He noted the "collateral consequences" for people who go to jail, saying they become ineligible for federal education grants, loans, or work assistance, and can be denied public housing - all services Booker said they need to move onto a different track. Instead, they end up hopeless, he said.
"Hopelessness is a toxic state of being," he said.
People who use marijuana can face mandatory minimum sentences of up to five years, "but other folks, like the last three presidents, have gotten away with it," Booker said.
Stressing that the issue was not purely racial, he said whites are arrested more than twice as often as blacks, but blacks are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police.
"This is data that should not shock us along racial lines," he said, "but shock us along American lines."