Instead of sending such criminals to jail for long stretches, Booker said, Congress should invest in drug-treatment programs to reduce recidivism. Those same low-level offenders make up more than half of the federal prison population, he said.
Booker appealed for reform in terms of economics and social justice.
"If we're concerned about the size of government, mass incarceration represents an ever-growing expenditure of taxpayers' dollars, producing dubious results," he said, adding that the United States spends $74 billion annually on its prison system, more than the gross domestic product of 133 countries. He cited a study in Washington state showing that for every dollar spent on correctional education, the state saved $12.
"And if we're focused on making America a global model for justice and a nation that lives up to its founding ideals, our criminal justice system represents instead an impediment to actually achieving those goals," he said.
Booker also made an emotional plea. On the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, Booker noted that King also spoke at the Metropolitan church in Jersey City in 1968 shortly before his assassination in Memphis.
Mass incarceration, Booker said, threatens to "take us further away from King's dream."
He noted that blacks were disproportionately represented in the prison population compared with the general population. In New Jersey, blacks make up 14 percent of the population but 60 percent of all inmates.
Booker also proposed having a "structured conversation about decriminalizing marijuana," again citing racial disparities.
Congress also should eliminate private prisons, Booker said, saying a profit motive "has to be troubling to the spirit of America."
And, with certain exceptions, public employers should not be able to request information about a prospective employee's criminal history before the interview stage, Booker said.
Eight states and 50 cities, including Newark, have implemented some version of that measure to improve ex-convicts' job prospects, he said.
Fixing the criminal justice system, Booker said, was "not a right or left issue," noting that some Republicans have formed a group called "Right on Crime" to work on the issue. He called for Congress to pass a sentencing bill cosponsored by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Some advocates of prison reform already see some progress. In 2010, for example, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the vast disparities in sentences handed down to people convicted on crack cocaine charges and those convicted on powder cocaine charges.
Booker's opponent in the Oct. 16 election, Republican Steve Lonegan, issued a statement Wednesday accusing Booker of trying to "shift the focus away from his failed record" on crime.
"Mayor Booker has failed to control the crime epidemic that has plagued his city," said Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota. "Violent crime continues to surge in Newark, as illustrated by three more fatal shootings between Monday night and Tuesday afternoon."
Preliminary FBI data show homicides were down overall from 105 since Booker took office in 2006 but had ticked steadily upward in recent years. The overall violent-crime rate has risen because of a spike in robberies, even as the number of rapes and aggravated assaults has decreased significantly during Booker's tenure.
Booker's proposals come as the Obama administration has resolved to overhaul stiff sentencing for drug-related crimes.
This month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy aimed at reducing the nation's overcrowded prison population. He ordered prosecutors to stop listing the specific drug quantities in indictments of low-level drug offenders in an effort to limit the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder said mass incarceration cost taxpayers $80 billion in 2010 alone and "comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."
Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @AndrewSeidman.