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Congressional Corner With Ed Markey

Senator Edward Markey
Senator Edward Markey

Criminal justice reform is the subject of national debate this year.

In today’s Congressional Corner, WAMC’s Alan Chartock continues his conversation with Massachusetts U.S. Senator Ed Markey.

This interview was recorded on August 12.

Alan Chartock: Senator Ed Markey is a Democrat of Massachusetts. He's been in office since 2013. Served in the House from 1976 to 2013. Senator, I was up early one day and I was watching C-SPAN. And it was a program in which you were talking criminal justice. And they were having people ask you questions. I was fascinated by it, because it's not an easy thing. Some people blame you for having voted for the Crime Bill. Have you changed your mind about the way we're treating criminals in this country?

Senator Ed Markey: Well, the criminal justice system in our country is broken. And that's why I introduced the Next Step Act with Senator Cory Booker. He and I, the two authors, have a piece of legislation that I think next year has an excellent chance of being signed into law. And what we have concluded is that it begins with just the sentencing guidelines. So for example, the prisons of the United States right now, the numbers are staggering. We're only 5% of the world's population in the United States, but we have 25% of all the prisoners who are behind bars in the world. We’re 25% of the world's population, one in three women in the world behind bars are from the United States, a staggering number. And who are they? Well, disproportionately black, brown poor. We criminalize those with mental illness, with substance disorder problems. So we have to change the system. So what Cory Booker and I are saying in our Next Step Act is that first of all, let's eliminate the discrepancy between crack cocaine and powder cocaine in terms of sentencing guidelines. It's 18 times higher for crack cocaine. Well, that's more of an inner city drug. And powder cocaine is more of a suburban drug. But let's just eliminate it. Because that's what leads to a disproportionate number of prisoners being black and brown. It's over sentenced. But we have to go beyond that. We have to begin to talk about expunging records, creating programs that make it possible to avoid this school to prison pipeline which exists in our country by putting the programs in place, diversion programs that help people not to turn into hardened criminals and as they leave to create opportunities for them by making it easier for them to get the jobs which they should be able to qualify for in the private sector. So I think we have to look at this comprehensively. And my goal will be to make sure that that's at the top of the agenda in Congress and Senator Cory Booker and I are intent on making it happen. And by the way, Cory Booker has endorsed me in this race because he knows that my passion about this issue.

I heard one person asked you - and I don't want to spend too much time on this - well, is it really fair that there are people who get put in jail for, you know, lifetime sentences? Your answer was a good one. But maybe you can remind us all what you're thinking about that?

Well, my thinking now, is that a life sentence without parole is really an outdated concept. And we have to leave the potential for parole to be available for someone who, over the years has proven that they are no longer a risk to society. And I think that's the standard that we should now adopt. And I think it's the humane. But I also think it's, it's wise for our society to believe ultimately in the ability for someone to rehabilitate themselves and to once again be allowed back into civilization, into society.

But, Senator, I just want to play this out with you for a minute: One of the reasons we have life without parole is we have largely done away with the death penalty. Not everywhere, but largely done away with it. If somebody kills your kid or goes in and wipes out a family, we say we're not going to kill you, but we are going to put you in jail as Mario Cuomo used to say and the only thing you'll hear is the toilet bowl flushing. That's different because we're not putting them to death. So are we changing our mind on that?

I think it's time for us to reevaluate that as a standard and I think holding out the possibility for parole is something that will give people hope and give them a reason to work harder towards their own personal rehabilitation.

I hear you. Now your primary campaign with Joe Kennedy is coming down to the wire. I want to ask you this: How is the pandemic impacting your get out the vote effort?

Well, you know, it's unbelievable. Ordinarily a campaign is handshaking and smiling, and now you can’t handshake and if you're smiling, it's behind a mask and people don't even know if you're smiling. So obviously, politics has changed. And we've moved it largely online and Zoom is now the organizing principle of our lives. But it doesn't mean that I'm still not talking to hundreds and sometimes thousands of people a day using modern electronic technologies. So the message stays the same, but the methodology by which it is communicated changes. And so we have an energy level in our campaign right now that is sky high. And the momentum is on our side, we can feel this incredible amount of enthusiasm for the campaign. My opponent is now engaging in negative campaigning. My opponent’s father and twin brother are now fueling a super PAC with his running negative ads. And that's only further energizing all of the people on my side of the campaign. So I feel I feel very good about where we are, where the campaign is and again, as I said there has to be a lot of self-distancing. You have to engage with people in a way that abides by all of the health guidelines that Tony Fauci and everyone else are recommending that we abide by.

Well, I watched you in Great Barrington at the gazebo. It's amazing, but you really have to be very careful, don’t you?

Yeah. Even on the gazebo in Great Barrington, I made sure that I was six feet away from everyone at all times. And I recommended that everyone else do the same. And because we're Massachusetts, we're not just the Bay State, we're the brain state. So we have to show that you can deal with this pandemic by abiding by the best public health guidelines. And I tried to do that even when I'm out in the gathering in Great Barrington, and on that day, I was also in Pittsfield. Making sure that we really do protect the public health.

Okay. Well, we've been talking to Senator Ed Markey, and we were delighted, Senator, that you've been able to join us. We'll be back with one more of these very interesting conversations. I do thank you for joining us.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.