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Kelley Paul Presses McConnell to Move Criminal Justice Reform Forward

Lisa Autry

The wife of U.S. Senator Rand Paul is lending her voice to criminal justice reform. 

Kelley Paul is joining her husband and fellow Republicans who are prodding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to bring the First Step Actto a vote before the current Congressional session ends next month. 

The legislation has bi-partisan support and would overhaul many of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 90s.  Speaking in Bowling Green on Tuesday, Kelley Paul said those laws have resulted in draconian sentences.

"Since the '94 crime bill, we have incarcerated a vast number of people, sometimes to the tune of 10, 20, and 30 mandatory minimum sentences, and even higher, even lifetime sentences for some people on a first offense, and we're seeing that our drug problem has just gotten worse," Paul told WKU Public Radio.

The First Step Act wouldn’t reduce how long people are sentenced to prison, but instead focuses on incentivizing inmates to take part in rehabilitation programs, with the possibility of earlier release.  The bill already cleared the U.S. House. 

Senator McConnell has said in the past that if 60 senators pledged to vote for the measure, he would be willing to bring it to the floor for a vote.  However,  McConnell recently cast doubt about the bill’s prospects, saying other legislative priorities could delay a vote until after the current session ends next month.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Kelley Paul joked she'd rather be in the kitchen making sweet potato casserole, but she spent much of Tuesday on the media circuit, pressing McConnell to prioritize the First Step Act.  A 2018 poll commissioned by the Justice Action Network found that a majority of Kentuckians think the nation’s criminal justice system is in need of reform, mirroring nationwide sentiments.

For Paul, criminal justice reform has become a family affair.  In the 1980s, her father-in-law, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, warned that the over-criminalization of drug crimes would have unintended consequences.  His son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has co-sponsored criminal justice reform legislation with some of his Democratic colleagues. 

While the GOP lawmaker has pushed for more comprehensive reform, including updated sentencing laws that would among other things, eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes, he says the First Step Act is an important step toward getting more inmates into treatment and reducing the nation's exploding prison population.

Some opponents say the bill doesn’t go far enough while others say the measure could endanger public safety and disenfranchise poor and minority inmates.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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