The Dream Corps team attended its first-ever SXSW Interactive in Austin!
It was five days of non-stop learning, inspiration and meaningful discussions about diversity in tech and criminal justice reform, thanks to engaging panels featuring our own Van Jones and Shaka Senghor.
- Shaka joined a panel of ex-prisoners and advocates for a powerful conversation on the need for criminal justice reform.
- Van and Maxine Williams, Facebook's Global Director of Diversity, took the stage to talk about #YesWeCode's mission and what Facebook is doing to increase diversity in its workplace.
- Van also shared the main stage with civil rights hero, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., to discuss pathways for inclusion in tech -- including what the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and #YesWeCode are doing to make change in Silicon Valley.
Check out highlights of our trip on storify.
Speaking at South by Southwest, the veteran activist said that opening the doors to the tech industry for people of color is the first step.
Fresh off the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Rev. Jesse Jackson brought his message of going “beyond the bridge” to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Jackson said that while the 1965 march was a major moment in the struggle to get blacks the right to vote, the new challenge will be opening up access to technology and Silicon Valley.
“Voting has its place, but the fastest-growing industry, I believe, is high tech, so we need to get in there,” he said. “We must make access to technology and this new machinery a crusade for everybody, not just a campaign for the few.”
Jackson has been instrumental in convincing major technology companies to release their diversity figures, which have shown that on average, just 2 percent of their workforce is black.
When #YesWeCode founder Van Jones, who moderated the conversation with Jackson, asked how many in the SXSW audience knew that the veteran activist has been pivotal in making this happen, very few people raised their hands.
How Jackson went about getting companies to cooperate illustrated a new way of taking protest from the pavement to the boardroom, he explained.
“The magic is going from a protester to a shareholder,” said Jackson, whose organization the Rainbow PUSH Coalition bought shares in tech companies to push for change from the inside.
“Ours was a social-justice agenda to change the conditions,” he said. “The argument that we made was not so much of a negative one but of a value-added argument.”
And Jackson hasn’t just been giving speeches; he’s getting action, Jones said. Just last week, Apple became the third tech company this year to announce a donation of funds to help increase the number of women and people of color in the tech industry. Apple is committing $50 million to the cause.
In January, Intel announced a gift of $300 million, and in February Google donated $775,000 to Code2040, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and minorities find tech jobs.
Jackson pointed out that blacks can be just innovative as whites and have been demonstrating this since the beginning of time.
“We can turn garbage into energy,” Jackson said. “Everyone has a place if you make room for them.”
He also wants to start an “underground railroad,” from Oakland to San Francisco, with the idea being to provide more inner-city black youths access to Silicon Valley.
Jackson said, however, that members of the black community have to do their part in forging their destiny in the tech world. “I don’t think we are doing as [well] right now as we should because people tend to be what they see,” Jackson said. “They don’t see it; they don’t want to be it.”
Technology must be taught in school, talked about at home and popularized through music, Jackson declared.
“It’s not just about being locked out; it’s about charging to open the door,” Jackson said, adding that it’s about not only opening the door but also being able to go through when it does open. 1 million-worker shortfall (pdf) in the tech industry. (Some, however, dispute that number.)
“If you start telling African-American and Latino and Native American grandmamas alone that their grandkids can make $70,000 a year if they work hard and study well for just six months, you’re not going to have a problem in terms of people wanting to be part of this,” Jones said.
He and Jackson are also pushing for big tech companies to start recruiting from HBCUs, not just from the usual feeder schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford.
Students from historically black colleges are just as qualified and should not be overlooked, Jackson said, adding, “Whenever the playing field is equal, we can make it.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.
Ford STEAM Lab and #YesWeCode bring Silicon Valley to Detroit, empowering students to “hack” education reform
- Ford STEAM Lab, a Ford Motor Company Fund program, to host a hackathon for 100 middle school students to learn software coding skills, develop solutions to education reform
- Ford is collaborating with California-based #YesWeCode and Level Playing Field Institute, and two Detroit organizations, Sisters Code and Grand Circus, a tech training company
- Event features a high profile panel of judges including Stephen Henderson/Detroit Free Press; Van Jones/#YesWeCode; and Skype appearance by Detroit native and rapper Big Sean
- The hackathon will be held March 27-28 at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Detroit. MSNBC will broadcast live from the hackathon on Friday, March 27
DETROIT, March 11, 2015 –Ford STEAM Lab, an educational program from the Ford Motor Company Fund, is bringing the power of Silicon Valley to Detroit with an innovative two-day hackathon to help middle school students improve their education while exploring high-tech careers.
The 100 students from five Detroit-area middle schools will learn the basics of software coding as they create and “hack” an application that will help them learn better. Their projects will be judged by a high profile panel of judges as they compete for bragging rights and more than $30,000 in scholarships and awards.
“Student voice and authentic inclusion is important to students succeeding in education," said Shawn Wilson, manager, Multicultural Community Engagement, Ford Motor Company Fund.
“Ford's goal is to not only empower students to take control of their educational future, but also discover a potential career pathway in Michigan’s growing technology sector.”
Ford STEAM Lab is collaborating with:
- #YesWeCode, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that targets low-opportunity youth and provides them with the necessary resources and tools to become world-class computer programmers.
- Level Playing Field Institute, an educational organization based in Oakland, Calif., committed to eliminating the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
- Sisters Code, a Detroit organization dedicated to helping women succeed in STEM-related fields.
- Grand Circus, a company based in Detroit that provides training and other skills necessary to work in technology companies.
- National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, a national organization that works on strategies to increase the graduation rate in America's schools.
"In the new century, technology is central to middle class jobs and income. We are proud to work with partners like Ford and the Level Playing Field Institute, to support 21st Century opportunities to students in Detroit,” said Van Jones, #YesWeCode founder.
The hackathon will be held March 27-28 at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley St., Detroit, 48216.
MSNBC will broadcast live from the hackathon on Friday, March 27. More details on the program will be announced at a later date.
After learning coding skills on the first day, students will present their app ideas to a panel of judges on the second day. The panel will include Stephen Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit Free Press and co-host of Detroit Today on WDET; and Van Jones, #YesWeCode founder, and environmental and civil rights advocate.
At the conclusion of the event, students will hear via Skype about two very different success stories. Detroit native and singer/songwriter Big Sean will speak to the importance of technology in music and how it changed the music industry.
Ford STEAM Lab was launched in October 2014 to spark high potential, low opportunity student passion for technology entrepreneurship and careers in traditional STEM fields, as well as automotive design and vehicle technology. STEAM Lab adds an arts component to help students learn how to use creativity and innovation in problem solving and collaboration.
Ford Motor Company Fund invests more than $8 million a year in scholarships and other education initiatives. In addition to the Ford STEAM Lab, Ford Fund educational programs include Ford Blue Oval Scholars, Ford Next Generation Learning, Ford College Community Challenge and Ford Driving Dreams Tour.
We are thrilled to announce our partnership with Dev Bootcamp to launch the Dev Bootcamp and #YesWeCode Diversity Scholarship.
In an effort to encourage more underrepresented racial and gender minorities to enter careers in the tech sector, Dev Bootcamp has pledged to offer $425,000 in tuition scholarships over the next year to reduce the cost of tuition from $13,000 to $1,000.
This scholarship initiative supports both our missions to provide more people the skills they need to access high-paying jobs as well as to help companies benefit from a more diverse talent pool.
Check out the FAQ below:
How do the scholarship programs work?
Dev Bootcamp runs on a rolling cohort schedule, where new students begin our program every 3-weeks. Through this scholarship program, we will offer one student a spot in our New York City program and one student a spot in our Chicago program in each of the next 17 cohorts.
The application deadline for this scholarship is April 15.
Who Can Qualify?
- You must be 18 or over, and:
- You must identify as a woman (or other gender minority)
- And/or you must identify as Black, Chicano/Latino, Pacific Islander or Native American
How do I apply?
- Go to apply.devbootcamp.com to start your application and select "I qualify for the Dev Bootcamp + YesWeCode Scholarship Fund"
- Once your Dev Bootcamp application is submitted, you’ll be directed to complete the "Dev Bootcamp + YesWeCode Scholarship Application"
- Complete the interview prep instructions and schedule your Dev Bootcamp interview! (note: Applicants will be notified of their admissions status within 24 hours of completing their interview. You must be accepted into the program to qualify for the scholarship)
- Scholarship recipients will be notified on May 1st
To learn more about our efforts to promote greater diversity within our organization and the tech community at large, please visit our Diversity page.
On March 27th and 28th, hope will turn into action in Detroit, Michigan, as msnbc, #YesWeCode, and Ford host a special Growing Hope event at the Ford STEAM Lab. Here, 100 students from five Detroit-area middle will participate in a two-day “hackathon”. They’ll have a chance to learn computer programming skills that help pave the way towards high-tech education and careers.
The tech products the students create at the hackathon will be judged by a high-profile panel, and over $30,000 in scholarships will be awarded. The panel will include Stephen Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit Free Press and co-host of Detroit Today on WDET, and Van Jones, #YesWeCode founder and environmental and civil rights advocate.
msnbc will present a special live broadcast from the event, hosted by Joy Reid, on March 27th at 2pm ET. Join us as we explore the remarkable work of young people who represent the hope and ingenuity that is essential to the continued revival of Detroit.
It’s been a historic week for #YesWeCode!
On Monday, The White House officially announced its TechHire Initiative, which includes:
#YesWeCode’s commitment to raising and delivering $10 million in scholarships for 2,000 underserved minorities across the nation, to attend coding bootcamps over the next ten years.
#YesWeCode's plan to launch a national job-training pilot in Oakland, California in 2015. Through this pilot, we will design a 9-month, industry-driven model to successfully prepare students from low-opportunity backgrounds for careers as software engineers.
#YesWeCode’s partnership with celebrities, athletes, tech and political leaders, and other influencers, to support the mission of #YesWeCode to find, finance, and encourage 100,000 non-traditional students to become top-level coders.
TechHire is a bold multi-sector initiative of the White House. It aims to empower Americans with the skills they need through universities, community colleges, high-quality online courses — as well as nontraditional approaches like “coding boot camps”, to secure well-paying jobs. Read the full White House Fact Sheet here.
Click below to watch an excerpt from President Obama’s TechHire announcement:
"At a time when we all lead digital lives, anybody who has the drive and the will to get into this field should have a way to do so, a pathway to do so." - President Obama
Spread the good news! Please share this tweet:
- For @WhiteHouseOSTP #TechHire initiative, #YesWeCode will target diverse communities for careers in tech! http://bit.ly/1GCrdj3
BUSINESSES IN THE US are on a hiring spree, but jobs that require tech skills sit open—500,000 in all.
It’s that gap that the Obama administration hopes to close with its new $100 million TechHire Initiative, announced by the president today. At its core, TechHire aims to convince local governments, businesses, and individuals that a four-year degree is no longer the only way to gain valuable tech skills.
“It turns out it doesn’t matter where you learned code, it just matters how good you are at writing code,” Obama said. “If you can do the job, you should get the job.”
That’s an idea that training startups like Codecademy and General Assembly, as well as online course companies like Coursera, have been pushing for years. Now, the White House is urging businesses and local governments to embrace that concept, as well.
In Silicon Valley, the idea of non-traditional training as a viable alternative to college is a familiar concept. In the rest of corporate America, not so much. And yet, non-tech industries like financial services and healthcare, are where two-thirds of the country’s tech jobs exist. So, to make this idea more palatable to non-tech employers, TechHire is working to develop some standards for alternative education.
“When companies have job openings they cannot fill, it costs them money,” he said, speaking to thousands of local leaders at the National League of Cities’ annual conference. “If these jobs go unfilled, it’s a missed opportunity for the workers, but also your city, your country, your state, and our nation.”
Setting the Standards
To create these standards, the Obama administration is working with the business advisory firm CEB to develop a guide for employers on how to recruit tech workers from less traditional places. It’s also working with a company called Knack to make a standard tech aptitude test free to employers and training organizations. The goal is to make it easy for employers to assess the quality of a job candidate, who doesn’t have a computer science degree on his resume.
There are financial incentives, too. In his speech, Obama announced that the Department of Labor would run a $100 million grant competition to fund programs that have a proven track record of helping underrepresented groups, like women, minorities, veterans, and people with disabilities, land tech jobs. Through TechHire, the group #YesWeCode also committed to donating $10 million in scholarships, which will fund 2,000 coding bootcamp scholarships for minorities.
The White House
President Obama Announces Multi-Sector Effort and Call to Action to Give Americans Pathways to Well-Paying Technology Jobs; Makes Available $100 Million in Grants
The President and his Administration are focused on promoting middle class economics to ensure that all Americans can contribute to and benefit from our American resurgence. Part of that effort requires empowering every American with the education and training they need to earn higher wages. Today’s announcement is the latest part of that effort: In his remarks to the National League of Cities, the President will announce his TechHire initiative, including a new campaign to work with communities to get more Americans rapidly trained for well-paying technology jobs.
Middle class economics has driven the President from day one, and it is what has fueled our comeback. On Friday, we learned that our economy created nearly 300,000 new jobs in February. American businesses have now added more than 200,000 jobs a month for the past 12 months, the longest streak of job creation at that pace in 37 years. All told, over the past five years, our businesses have created 12 million new jobs.
While we are seeing an economic resurgence, the President has made clear that there is still work left to do. America has about 5 million open jobs today, more than at any point since 2001. Over half a million of those job openings are in information technology fields like software development, network administration, and cybersecurity- many of which did not even exist just a decade ago. The average salary in a job that requires information technology (IT) skills – whether in manufacturing, advertising, retail or banking – is 50 percent higher than the average private-sector American job. Helping more Americans train and connect to these jobs is a key element of the President’s middle-class economics agenda.
As part of that agenda, TechHire is a bold multi-sector effort and call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need, through universities and community colleges but also nontraditional approaches like “coding bootcamps,” and high-quality online courses that can rapidly train workers for a well-paying job, often in just a few months. Employers across the United States are in critical need of talent with these skills. Many of these programs do not require a four-year degree. Key elements of the initiative include:
- Over twenty forward-leaning communities are committing to take action – working with each other and with national employers – to expand access to tech jobs. To kick off TechHire, 20 regions, with over 120,000 open technology jobs and more than 300 employer partners in need of this workforce, are announcing plans to work together to new ways to recruit and place applicants based on their actual skills and to create more fast track tech training opportunities. The President is challenging other communities across the country to follow their lead.
- $100 million in new Federal investments to train and connect more workers to a good job in technology and other in-demand fields. The Administration will launch a $100 million H-1B grant competition by the Department of Labor to support innovative approaches to training and successfully employing low-skill individuals with barriers to training and employment including those with child care responsibilities, people with disabilities, disconnected youth, and limited English proficient workers, among others. This grant competition will support the scaling up of evidence-based strategies such as accelerated learning, work-based learning, and Registered Apprenticeships.
- Private sector boosts tools and resources to support and expand continued innovation in technology training, with a focus on reaching under-served populations. Private sector leaders are announcing commitments to provide free training through online training slots and expanding “coding bootcamps” – which provide intensive training for well-paying jobs, often in the course of just a few months – to low-income and underserved Americans including women, minorities, and veterans across the nation. National organizations are committing to work with interested cities to share job and skills information, job-matching tools, and other resources to help support the growth, adoption, and creation of promising practices across the United States.
Details on the Tech Hire Initiative
The TechHire initiative builds on work communities like Louisville, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York City and the State of Delaware are doing to connect more Americans to well-paying technology jobs through a potent combination of new tools and training models:
Over twenty forward-leaning communities are committing to take action – with each other and with national employers – to expand access to tech jobs: The TechHire initiative will achieve its goals by connecting communities together so promising ideas happening in one community can be rapidly adopted by other regions. Today, 21 communities are stepping up and responding to the President’s call-to-action, including:
|Louisville||New York City||Philadelphia||Delaware||City of Kearney and Buffalo County||Rural Eastern Kentucky|
|St. Louis||Salt Lake City||Los Angeles||Minneapolis||Kansas City||Chattanooga|
Building on the promising work already underway in their communities, they are all committing to three actions:
- Using data and innovative hiring practices to expand openness to non-traditional hiring: Having a data-driven assessment of employer demand is critical to building a successful regional strategy. Communities are committing to work with employers to build robust data on where they have greatest needs and what skills they are looking for; communities will work with employers to build willingness to hire from both nontraditional and traditional training programs; and communities will work with employers to review -and upgrade -their recruiting and hiring practices to enable non-traditional hiring.
- Expanding models for training that prepare students in months, not years: Communities will recruit, incubate and expand accelerated tech learning programs – such as coding bootcamps and innovative online training – which enable interested non-tech-experienced students to gain coding skills in months, not years. These new models also have potential to reaching to a broader set of students than have traditionally chosen to pursue tech careers. These new training programs can be run both independently or embedded as part of a local community college or university education offering.
- Active local leadership to connect people to jobs with hiring on ramp programs: Communities will build local strategies and partnerships to connect people to jobs, with steps ranging from investing in and working with industry-trusted organizations, which will vouch for those who have the skills to do the job but who may lack the typical profile of degrees and career experience. They will host local tech community gatherings with engaged employers, attract new non-traditional training providers to their regions, and bring visibility to existing local activities such as tech meet-ups, startup co-working spaces or startup-weekends - which are already in place in most middle-size cities or encouraging the founding of these groups if they are not available locally.
The Administration is encouraging more communities and employers to follow in their lead with similar innovative strategies to advance these goals.
Examples of TechHire Community Commitments
- St. Louis, MO. A network of over 150 employers in St. Louis’ rapidly expanding innovation ecosystem will build on a successful Mastercard pilot to partner with local non-profit Launchcode, to build the skills of women and underrepresented minorities for tech jobs, and will also place 250 apprentices in jobs in 2015 at employers like Monsanto, CitiBank, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and Anheuser Busch.
- New York City, NY. With employers including Microsoft, Verizon, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Facebook, the Tech Talent Pipeline is announcing new commitments to prepare college students in the City University of New York (CUNY) system for and connect them to paid internship opportunities at local tech companies. NYC will also expand successful models like the NYC Web Development Fellowship serving 18-26 year olds without a college degree in partnership with the Flatiron School.
- State of Delaware. The new Delaware TechHire initiative is committing to training entry-level developers in a new accelerated coding bootcamp and Java and .Net accelerated community college programs giving financial institutions and healthcare employers, throughout the state, access to a new cohort of skilled software talent in a matter of months. Capital One, Bank of America, Christiana Care and others are committing to placing people trained in these programs this year.
- Louisville, KY. Louisville has convened over 20 IT employers as part of the Code Louisville initiative to train and place new software developers, including Glowtouch, Appriss, Humana, Zirmed, and Indatus. Louisville will build on this work in support of the TechHire Initiative: the city will recruit a high-quality coding bootcamp to Louisville and establish a new partnership between Code Louisville and local degree granting institutions to further standardize employer recognition of software development skillsets.
A $100 million competition for innovative approaches to connect Americans with disabilities, disconnected youth, and others to the fastest path to a good job in technology and other in-demand fields.
Today the Administration is announcing its commitment to make $100 million available through the Department of Labor to support innovative approaches to moving lower skilled workers with barriers to training and employment on the fastest paths to well-paying information technology and high growth jobs in industries like healthcare, advanced manufacturing, financial services and other in-demand sectors. The grant will focus on providing workers the skills for a pathway to the middle class while providing employers with the skilled technology workers need to grow and expand. This grant will serve people with barriers to accessing training including people with childcare responsibilities, people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency, and disconnected youth, among others. It will serve both unemployed and low skilled front line workers.
Grants will pilot and scale innovative partnerships between employers, workforce boards, training institutions, non-profit organizations, and cities and states across the country. These partnerships will support the implementation of job-driven training strategies to help workers complete basic and technical skills training using evidence-based strategies such as accelerated learning, work-based learning and Registered Apprenticeships. A solicitation for applications for these partnerships will be available this fall and awards will be made next year. These grants will be financed by a user fee paid by employers to bring foreign workers into the United States under the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program.
Private sector leaders are announcing tools and resources to scale continued innovation in technology training, with a focus on reaching under-served populations.
Expanding accelerated models for training in months not years:
- A group of 10 bootcamps are jointly announcing a shared, third-party validated format for annually publishing completion and employment outcomes to help continue to drive innovation in the bootcamp model.
- The accelerated training providers Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor, Microsoft, Treehouse Island, Inc., and Udacity will all be expanding free or discounted training slots for underserved communities and individuals.
General Assembly will work with community colleges, other training providers, and employers with the aim of further standardizing web development training
- Flatiron School, Hackbright Academy, and Rural Sourcing are announcing they will provide pro bono consulting to help interested communities expand and improve training.
- Cisco will provide select individuals interested in career opportunities in IT with free access to online IT networking skills including hundreds of online training assets.
Support for local leaders:
- Opportunity@Work, a national civic enterprise that is launching at New America today, will aim to connect policy to action and will collaborate with private and philanthropic partners to create freely available tools to scale-up employer commitments to inclusive hiring practices, to facilitate a nationwide learning network for communities, and to create new financing to help lower-income Americans be trained and placed into technology jobs.
- Capital One, through its FutureEdge initiative, a $150 million effort that will help increase tech skills and hiring, will collaborate with Opportunity@Work to provide support tailored to the needs of communities.
- #YesWeCode commits to delivering $10 million in scholarships for 2,000 underserved minorities across the nation, to attend coding bootcamps over the next ten years.
Using data and innovative hiring practices to expand hiring to include non-traditional training paths:
- CEB will develop their own best practices playbook for employers with guidance to private and public employers on how to recruit tech talent from non-traditional sources.
- LinkedIn will provide free data about the supply and demand of IT skills to communities to help them identify shortages and focus training resources on skills most in-demand.
- Knack will for the first time make its aptitude test technology available free of charge to employers, communities, and accelerated training providers that are launching inclusive training and hiring campaigns aimed at underserved minorities, women, and veterans.
A complete list of private sector commitments can be found here.
The President’s Agenda to Create Pathways to the Middle-Class Through High-Quality, Job-Driven Training. TechHire is part of the President’s broader agenda to invest in job-driven training:
- Vice-President Biden’s Job-Driven Training Review. The President’s TechHire initiative builds on the job-driven training review that the President asked the Vice President to lead in the 2013 State of the Union. Amongst other findings, the Vice President’s review identified information technology generally and cybersecurity in particular as an emerging area of growth that requires job-driven training strategies to meet business needs and provide more workers with a path to the middle class.
- VA Accelerated Learning Competition. To ensure that Veterans can take full advantage of innovative learning models, VA will apply $10M in innovation funding to leverage accelerated learning and test its effectiveness for transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans over the next two years. VA will concentrate this initiative in communities where conditions are conducive for VA to provide industry-specific and place-based support to Veterans and transitioning Servicemembers
- American Apprenticeship Grant Competition. Last year, DOL opened a $100 million competition to spur partnerships between employers, labor, training providers, and local governments to expand apprenticeships into high-growth fields like information technology and scale models that work. The deadline for this application is April 30, 2015, and more information is available at the Grants.gov application page.
- Information Technology Industry-Credentialing partnerships. The President’s FY2016 budget proposes $300 million to fund IT jobs partnerships between regional employers to develop and adopt assessments and credentials that will give more people the chance to qualify for a better, higher-paying tech job regardless of their pedigree.
Some liberal critics see the conservative billionaires' latest crusade as a PR stunt. Could it advance the cause anyway?
Here is the thing the Koch brothers wish their critics understood: They just want to help people.
"Everything we do is designed to help people improve their lives, whether you're talking about our business or our philanthropy," Mark Holden, the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told me recently from his office in Wichita, where the multibillion-dollar international manufacturing conglomerate that Charles and David Koch inherited from their father is headquartered. "We think a free society, consistent with classical liberalism and individual liberties, is the key to success for everyone, and that's what drives a lot of our activities. And criminal-justice reform is good for all of us—the rich, the poor, and everyone else."
Though the Kochs are best known—and, to liberals, notorious—for the massive amounts of money they pour into politics, they have lately been calling attention to a less polarizing crusade: an attempt to address what they term "the overcriminalization of America." But not everyone is convinced that their efforts are quite so sincere.
Critics such as Robert Greenwald, director of the documentary Koch Brothers Exposed, suspect that the push to roll back the criminal code is really just the brothers' deregulatory agenda by another name. Indeed, Charles Koch, the company's chairman and CEO, has said he became interested in criminal-justice reform after a grand jury's 1995 indictment of a Koch refinery in Texas for 97 felony violations of environmental law. The company spent six years fighting the charges and eventually settled with the government for $10 million. Seen in this light, the criminal-justice pitch is just another attempt to manipulate the political process to advance the company's financial interests. That's the view of the liberal group American Bridge, which maintains the anti-Koch "Real Koch Facts" website. "Their own bottom line isn't just an important factor in their activity, it's the only thing," a spokesman for the group, Ben Ray, told me.
This is the question that has always swirled around the Kochs and their political efforts—the massive juggernaut of funding for conservative activism and candidates that critics dub the "Kochtopus": Are the brothers sincere ideologues dedicated to a libertarian vision for America? Or are they simply trying to tilt the political system to favor themselves and their companies?
Various tentacles of the Kochtopus have been involved in criminal-justice issues for about a decade; during that time, Charles Koch has quietly made contributions amounting to seven figures to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, money that has been used to provide lawyers for poor defendants. In 2011, the group honored Koch Industries with its annual Defender of Justice award. "They are in complete agreement with us on the fundamental policy—to make the Sixth Amendment a reality for every person in the country," said the association's executive director, Norman Reimer.
But the Kochs' advocacy has become more vocal in recent months, from public statements to new partnerships with such groups as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even the liberal Center for American Progress. The bid for more attention for the reform effort has received overwhelmingly positive attention, and coincides with a new PR push to show Koch Industries in a friendlier light, including a "We Are Koch" national television campaign that casts the company as heartland job creators—prompting the Kochs' critics to suspect a whitewash. After all, the investment in criminal-justice reform pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions the Kochs and their donor network have spent electing Republicans, many of whom don't share their views on civil liberties, Greenwald noted. "Certainly the scales tip against the impact of this, except from the press point of view," he said of the reform push.
And yet the Kochs have found many willing partners on the left for this effort, even among their erstwhile critics. In 2011, the civil-rights activist and former Obama administration adviser Van Jones cited the Kochs as emblematic of the "economic tyranny" plaguing America, declaring, "We will not live on a national plantation run by the Koch brothers." He appears in the Koch Brothers Exposed(tagline: "The 1% at its very worst"). But Jones has welcomed the Kochs' support for his new Cut50 project, which aims to halve the prison population over the next decade. At a recent panel discussion in Washington, he sat next to Holden and gave him a hug. Koch Industries has agreed to participate in an upcoming conference Jones is sponsoring on prison reform. When I asked Jones if it made him uncomfortable to team up with people he's previously depicted as villains, he responded, "When you've got more than 2 million people behind bars, I'll fight alongside anybody to change those numbers."
A growing number of criminal justice reform organizations, among them the ACLU, Rebuild the Dream, and Just Leadership USA, are uniting behind one big goal: to reduce the prison population by 50 percent within the next 10 to 15 years.
With 2.3 million Americans incarcerated in prisons and jails, a 50 percent reduction would mean changing sentencing and parole rules to cut the net population by more than 1 million people, either by releasing current inmates or by not incarcerating future offenders.
Left mostly unsaid is that achieving the goal of this “Cut50” movement would entail touching what has long been a third-rail in criminal justice reform. To halve the prison population, sentencing would have to change not only for the so-called “non, non, nons” — non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offender criminals — but also for some offenders convicted of violent crimes.
These changes could include shortening sentence lengths; making it easier for prisoners to win parole; deciding that probation or community service are more appropriate consequences than prison time for entire classes of crimes; diverting more suspects to mental illness programs or addiction treatment; and even redefining what offenses are considered violent in the first place.
Simple math shows why violent offenders would have to be part of any serious attempt to halve the number of prisoners. Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion.
That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.
So if 100 percent of all people convicted of drug, public order, and property crimes were released early or sentenced to punishments other than prison time, you would still need to free, say, 30 percent of robbery offenders to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the prison population.
The “tough on crime” movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s ended up as a movement toward mass incarceration. The “lock ’em up” mentality succeeded at turning the home of the free into the land of the imprisoned – but it failed at making us safer.
Today, we are seeing the rise of a new movement – one that aims to roll back the prison industry by using hard science, objective data and innovative models that work.
It’s about time. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we are responsible for 25 percent of the jail and prison population. More Americans are under correctional supervision than live in the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. At a time of tight government budgets, we spend billions each year to put people behind bars – including many who sit in a jail cell simply awaiting trial.
Making even less sense, a disproportionate number of people are behind bars for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. Six out of every 10 people who leave a California prison return within three years; our “corrections” system is not correcting much.
Worse, people of color bear the brunt of this broken system. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that African Americans receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than those for whites convicted of the same crime. And The Sentencing Project found that black defendants are 20 percent more likely to face prison time.
California and the nation are left with a massive incarceration industry that locks up too many people, wastes too much money, ruins too many lives and violates our sense of racial fairness – all while failing to make our communities much safer.
So how do we get smarter on crime? That question is bringing together unlikely allies from opposite sides of the political spectrum around novel solutions.
State legislatures across the country are finally undoing many failed, inhumane and costly sentencing laws. Here in California, Proposition 47, passed last November, reduced six low-level felonies that can carry prison time to misdemeanors. Just three months later, the law is credited for reducing crowding in jails and prisons – helping the state meet a court-ordered population cap a year earlier than scheduled.
In additional to long-standing reformers who supported Proposition 47, conservatives including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky lent their support. The campaign’s single largest individual donor was B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative billionaire from Southern California.
That’s why my organization, the Dream Corps, has launched #cut50, an initiative to safely and smartly reduce America’s prison population by 50 percent by 2025. Our surprisingly broad sweep of partners include everyone from Gingrich to the ACLU.
Meanwhile, there are innovative new approaches to harness data and technology to improve the criminal justice system. DNA testing has reduced the number of people locked up for crimes they didn’t commit; vehicle and body cameras may be able to help improve police-community relations; and gunshot location devices can pinpoint shooters. And we can make better criminal justice decisions by incorporating the kind of data used by health officials to track diseases, by cities to reduce rush-hour traffic and, perhaps most famously, by general managers trying to build a winning baseball team.
In Kentucky, judges in all 120 counties have been using a new risk-assessment tool to assist them when they consider whether to lock up or release defendants between their arrest and trial. This tool is already being used in counties in three other states, including Santa Cruz County here in California. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which developed the tool, found that in the first six months, a greater percentage of defendants in Kentucky were released before trial. At the same time, crime among pretrial defendants went down by about 15 percent. Especially important, the tool is race-neutral and relies on a defendant’s criminal history rather than demographic information.
Ultimately, the status quo in our jails and courthouses is bad for California, bad for America and bad for communities of color. The incarceration industry needs a top-to-bottom overhaul – from pretrial detention through to sentencing and rehabilitation. But if we want to reverse this untenable situation, we need to consider creative, data-driven solutions such as Kentucky’s pretrial tool and execute them wisely.
If we are willing to step out of our comfort zone, the result will be fewer people behind bars, less bias and discrimination, lower costs – and safer communities. Now that is getting smart on crime.
On Feb. 9, Van Jones visited the New School to share his vision for Rebuilding the Dream: Framing Civil Rights for the 21st Century.
The 2015 Henry Cohen Lecture Series, Public Policy in Action, is devoted to advancing social equity in America. The series examines how public policy serves as a vehicle to advance economic and social inclusion in the context of evolving demographic, economic, and political shifts in America. This series serves as a catalyst for the continuing dialog on the state of social justice in America.
Watch the full video below.