Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Why Charles Koch Wants to Reform Blue Collar Criminal Justice

Nov. 16, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — It probably won’t come as a surprise that a summit titled Advancing Justice convened a couple of weeks ago. After all, President Obama and congressional leaders seem to agree on only one thing lately: that the criminal justice system needs some serious reform so that it “treat[s] people fairly regardless of race, wealth, station.”

A critical move came late last month when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15-5 to send a bill to the full Senate that would permit more discretion and flexibility in the sentences that judges dole out to low-level drug offenders. The bill shrinks the number of crimes that are subject to mandatory minimum sentences (those that can be categorized as “nonviolent”). The legislation leaves intact and, in some cases, increases mandatory minimums for violent drug offenses. It also extends and establishes rehabilitation programs and reduces sentences of qualified inmates through recidivism reduction plans.

For some reason criminal justice reform has become a uniting issue rather than a divisive one. Even Obama noted that it has “created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.”

Which brings us to Charles Koch, the venerable CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, and his summit.  The Charles Koch Institute sponsored and held the event, “Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity and Public Safety,” in New Orleans on November 4-6. The speakers represented a diverse array of voices from across various political and legal spectrums.

This begs the question: why would an arch conservative and insanely wealthy individual give a damn about prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate legal representation, and punitive and disparate sentences that affect the poor and ethnic minorities?

The answer is simple: because it should be an issue that we all care about. And Koch is right:

After a sentence is served, we should restore all rights to youthful and nonviolent offenders, such as those involved in personal drug use violations. If ex-offenders can’t get a job, education or housing, how can we possibly expect them to have a productive life?

Of course, Koch is no dummy. He’s not exactly going out and unlocking jailhouse doors, and he’s balanced his reform agenda with the acknowledgement that public safety is the priority:

We need force to defend the country, protect people’s personal property and [against] other bad acts.

Nonetheless, Koch gets it. The United States comprises 5 percent of the world population. Our prison population, however, makes up 25 percent of the global incarceration rate, and Koch has focused his millions on changing that.

This isn’t Koch’s first foray into criminal justice reform. Ten years ago, Koch began funding efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to help train defense lawyers who are woefully overworked and underpaid. The Koch Brothers have also advocated for amending civil asset forfeiture laws, and Koch Industries no longer asks job applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

What prompted this? The answer to that question was surprising. Apparently, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Koch Industries had some serious legal problems. Ultimately, Koch Petroleum Group paid a $10 million settlement in the wake of a six-year struggle after a federal grand jury indicted the company on 97 felonies related to environmental violations at an oil refinery.

Perhaps white-collar crime can lead to blue-collar reform. The Koch brothers likely will be forever linked to funding scarily conservative candidates, but their commitment to criminal justice reform appears to be genuine. The summit in New Orleans appears to truly have been “a bipartisan (or perhaps more accurately, a transpartisan) affair.”

It will be interesting to see how far (and, dare I say, “radical”) criminal justice will go given that conservatives and liberals alike seem to agree on many of the suggestions. Still, there are skeptics that believe the Kochs’ true intentions align more with controlling the political capital to ultimately help their industrial design rather than promoting fairness:

Koch money can now do almost as it pleases in politics; the Kochtopus would obviously like to do the same in court against the tree-huggers and labor unionists who so often seek to block them.

I hope that’s not the case. For now, I’ll believe (perhaps naively) that the Kochs can help catalyze bipartisan support where before there was none. That the support may come from an unexpected source, but that should not dilute the benefits or effect. The program for the Advancing Justice summit contained a quote from Frederick Douglass, and it’s prescient: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” We’ve got a long way to go, but for the first time in a long time, real reform seems to be on the horizon.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Ben
    16 November 2015 at 11:05 am - Reply

    I’ll believe it when they actually do something effective about it. Throwing conferences and events is nice and all, but it does absolutely nothing. Until they start pressuring candidates to either support REAL reform, and threatening them with withholding PAC money to enforce it, it’s all hot air.

  • Scott Jacobs
    16 November 2015 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    “This begs the question: why would an arch conservative”

    You spell “libertarian” funny…