LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Courier-Journal) -- U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told a largely black audience Monday in Louisville that he will push to restore the voting and gun-ownership rights of felons who have completed their sentences - and he will urge state Senate Republicans to follow his lead.
Currently in Kentucky, felons must petition the governor to get their voting rights restored.
"I am in favor of letting people get their rights back, the right to vote ... Second Amendment rights, all your rights to come back," he said. "I know of one man who 30-some-odd years ago had pot plants in his closet in college, got a felony conviction in college, still can't vote, and it's plagued him his whole life trying to get work."
The Republican's comments came at the Plymouth Community Renewal Center in western Louisville as he spoke with community leaders about issues that affect African Americans. Additionally, as he has done in the past, he called for doing away with mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal justice system, saying they are often too harsh.
The Rev. Patrick Delahanty, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and who was not at the meeting, applauded Paul's stance on restoring voting rights in a later interview. He said Paul's comments could help advance the issue during the next session of the General Assembly.
In recent years, proponents of the legislation have been able to push it through the Democrat-controlled Kentucky House, but Republicans in the Senate have blocked passage time after time.
"What I hope is that the Senate Republicans, some of whom have been blocking attempts to get this done in Kentucky, will change their minds so when we go back in January, we can get something done," he said.
Delahanty said the Catholic Conference, which represents Kentucky's four Roman Catholic bishops, has actively pushed legislation to restore felons' rights for about six years.
Scott Cox, a Louisville criminal defense lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, said anyone convicted of a felony in either state or federal court can petition the governor to restore their rights to vote, run for office and serve on a jury.
But gun rights can only be restored following a background check by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but those checks haven't been funded for decades, he said in an interview.
Paul said during the meeting in western Louisville that he believes felons should have their rights restored automatically - either immediately after completing their sentences or at some specified point after the sentences are served.
He said he plans to talk to leaders in the Kentucky Senate about their opposition and would be willing to travel to Frankfort to testify in favor of legislation to restore voting rights.
Said Cox: "The whole idea of sending someone to prison is to rehabilitate them. It's ridiculous to hold them accountable for their whole life."
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, didn't immediately return a phone call. Neither did Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, chairman of the Senate State & Local Government Committee, which has considered the legislation previously.
Automatic restoration of voting rights in Kentucky would require a constitutional amendment. And the legislation that has been filed in recent years in Kentucky would allow only non-violent offenders to have their rights restored automatically, while violent offenders would still have to get the governor's approval.
Most Kentucky governors have been lenient when it comes to restoring voting rights, except former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who made felons write an essay explaining why they deserved to have their rights restored and submit three letters of reference.
The League of Women Voters found in a 2006 study that nearly one in four African Americans is banned from the polls because of a felony conviction, compared with 1 in 17 Kentuckians overall.
Paul, who has said he is considering running for president in 2016, has been meeting with African-American groups in an effort to bridge the gap between blacks and the Republican Party. Paul also met this year with students at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then later with students at historically black Simmons College in Louisville.
During an hourlong discussion Monday, Paul listened as black leaders talked about issues that hinder African Americans' ability to get a leg up and fully participate in the community.
Much of their concern centered around helping black men who committed crimes but have turned their lives around.
Shawn Gardner complained that a conviction 17 years ago keeps him from participating in activities with his daughters who are students in Jefferson County schools.
Don Smith, who runs an organization that tries to place felons in jobs, said he favored legislation that would allow felons who had completed their sentences and probations to say on job applications that they are not felons. He said acknowledging that you were convicted of a felony often prevents people from getting jobs.
He said those who have committed crimes also have trouble renting apartments and sometimes must live with family members in public housing, putting them at risk of being evicted for violating their leases. Felons aren't allowed to live in public housing.
Paul also expressed support for state and federal tax breaks for businesses that bring jobs to disadvantaged communities.
"I don't care if anybody pays any taxes," he said. "If they'll bring 1,000 jobs to west Louisville, I think it would be great."