At this evening’s Capital Awards, we’re also honoring Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), for his work on reforming our juvenile justice system. The expected re-introduction of the “REDEEM Act” would help end the school-to-prison pipeline for young Latinos and give nonviolent criminals a better chance to find employment after they have served their sentences. We asked Sen. Booker about these efforts and about his rise to the U.S. Senate.
NCLR: What prompted you to decide on a career in public service?
Sen. Booker: My parents. There is a great saying by James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” My parents worked for IBM while I was growing up but they were both so involved in public service and they both made sure my brother and I understood that we had the privileges and opportunities we did because of the work, struggle, service, and sacrifice of others. So I had a great model and feel that no matter your occupation, we all should have a passion for serving others because we are the product of such commitments to service.
NCLR: As it relates to juvenile justice, what are some of the concerns you hope will be addressed by the “REDEEM Act”?
Sen. Booker: We must fix our broken criminal justice system and reforms to our juvenile justice system are a critical piece of the puzzle. We need sensible, pragmatic reforms to keep kids out of an adult system in the first place and protect their privacy so a youthful mistake does not haunt young people throughout their lives.
We must ensure that children who make mistakes do not get stuck in a life of crime and instead grow up to be productive members of society. The “REDEEM Act” gives youth the chance to get nonviolent crimes expunged or sealed so they can move on with their lives and protect their privacy.
It would also ban the very cruel and counterproductive practice of juvenile solitary confinement that can have immediate and long-term detrimental effects on youth detainees’ mental and physical health. In fact, the majority of suicides by juveniles in prisons are committed by young people who are in solitary confinement. Other nations even consider it torture. Taken together, these measures will help keep kids who get in trouble out of a lifetime of crime.
NCLR: You’ve talked about increasing tech engagement and access for all, including communities of color. NCLR supports expanding broadband access for all, as well, when presently just 53 percent of Hispanic Americans report having this type of Internet access at home. Can you mention some ways the “Community Broadband Act” could address these gaps?
Sen. Booker: High-speed Internet access is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity. By breaking down arbitrary barriers and allowing local communities to make meaningful investments in broadband, the “Community Broadband Act” aims to help bridge the digital divide wherever it persists. Sadly, the technology gap tends to be greatest in minority and low-income communities. It is my hope that the “Community Broadband Act” will create strong, economic alliances between municipalities, community members, businesses, and nonprofits, all of which stand to gain if localities provide broadband to their residents when existing broadband options are nonexistent or prove inadequate. The act will also bring a new level of affordability to broadband, which will enhance the online experience and allow for greater innovation and enable local governments to find tech solutions to some of our toughest problems.
NCLR: After President Obama announced his executive actions on immigration in November, you stated that “Congress must act to fix our broken immigration system and implement a long-term solution.” What are some of the points you would use to help make the case for permanent immigration reform?
Sen. Booker: I am encouraged by President Obama’s November 2014 executive actions on immigration. They were an important first step, but more needs to be done. At a time of great crisis in our country, when families are being separated, our nation is losing revenue, and we have an immigration policy that fails to accomplish our common goals; we must implement a comprehensive strategy that secures our border and strengthens our economy.
I support comprehensive immigration reform. Today, we have 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. They are hiding in the shadows, which presents a danger to our national security and harms our economy. It is unrealistic, and poor public policy, to simply deport hardworking undocumented immigrants, many of whom do critical jobs in our economy that help us to prosper.
We must pull individuals out of the shadows, not to grant them amnesty, but allow them to pay taxes and start on a path toward lawful immigration. Congress must act to fix our broken immigration system and implement a long-term solution—nothing less than America’s economic success, national security, and fundamental values are at stake.
NCLR: You have been very active in promoting pathways for women and people of color to become entrepreneurs as a way to foster economic growth. What specific national policies do you aim to champion to achieve this?
Sen. Booker: Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the economic engines of our nation, spurring innovation and creating jobs in our local communities. While entrepreneurship can offer great opportunities to build wealth or realize an innovative idea, too many women and minority entrepreneurs face steep hurdles to business ownership.
Access to capital is a critical issue for women and minority small-business owners and often serves as a significant barrier to business ownership. Recognizing these challenges, I have worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration to examine disparities in lending to women and minority-owned businesses in the agency’s 7(a) and 504 loan guarantee programs. Furthermore, in an effort to boost participation and awareness of these and other lending resources, last year I hosted five small-business forums across New Jersey that convened a broad spectrum of entrepreneurs and connected New Jersey business owners to federal and local resources. Going forward, I plan to continue leading this type of outreach to link business owners with the resources necessary to access capital and create jobs.
As a member of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, I have also championed legislation to help drive startup resources to new areas. Currently, growth accelerator programs and other resources that support business startups are concentrated in Silicon Valley and even New York City. Forty-eight states across the country lack resources critical to startup growth, and legislation I introduced last year—the “Startup Opportunity Growth Accelerator (SOAR) Act”—would support a Small Business Administration fund to expand the impact of these resources by bringing accelerator programs to new communities. I plan to reintroduce this legislation this year.
Follow #NCLRCAPS15 on Twitter for live updates throughout the evening from the 2015 NCLR Capital Awards!