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.
LET'S EMBRACE PRISON REFORM, RATHER THAN JUST RETHINK EDUCATION AND IMMIGRATION, TO HELP ADDRESS OUR LABOR ISSUES.
BY BARATUNDE THURSTON
Shaka Senghor spent 19 years in prison for murder. Since his release in 2010, he’s become a teacher at the University of Michigan, a published author, a sought-after speaker (his 2014 TED talk is a must-see), and an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, which is how he and I met. Senghor paid his debt, and he’s a one-person testimonial to the value that exists in everyone.
And he doesn’t want to be the only one.
There are currently two separate, parallel debates taking place in Silicon Valley about the future of its workforce. One is about how the technology industry can be more diverse. Much of the effort to that end has focused on encouraging girls and people of color to embrace tech at a young age. The other conversation centers around immigration reform. Industry leaders argue that it’s vital to lure the talent necessary to fill the engineering jobs at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Dropbox. This is why Mark Zuckerberg created the lobbying group Fwd.US, although its record has been spotty.
I’m all for promoting tech and welcoming immigrants. But neither of these are enough. Not when there are more potential Shaka Senghors behind bars. There are more than 1.5 million prisoners in the United States, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. Our society is just now coming to terms with the cost of letting these people rot away in jail for decades. When rehabilitated ex-cons reenter their communities, they face a jarring cultural disconnect. Not only is it hard to find employment, it’s challenging to adapt to a world that presumes ever more technological literacy. When Senghor went to jail, laptops and suitcases were indistinguishable in size. The only talking car he’d ever hear of was on Knight Rider. But when he was released five years ago, "It was really like, ‘Welcome to an urban episode of The Jetsons!’ " he tells me.
Senghor admits that he still struggles with life beyond bars, and he’s made it his mission to help reintroduce others to society, including an immersion in tech. He’s teamed up with Van Jones—founder of Rebuild the Dream, onetime Obama green jobs czar, and CNN commentator—on #Cut50, Jones’s initiative (with Newt Gingrich!) to trim by half the U.S. prison population. Senghor believes his efforts can help reduce recidivism.
Other people are working to create opportunities related to technology for reformed felons. A program in California called The Last Mile is working to provide entrepreneurship training in prisons. Isidore Electronics, run by Kabira Stokes, hires formerly incarcerated individuals to recycle the electronics we might otherwise toss into landfills, proving that we don’t have to waste our gadgets or our fellow human beings.
We can do even more, which is why we should add tech’s biggest brains to the conversation. "The whole idea of coding is iterating and innovating around necessity," Senghor says. "Well, in [a prison] environment, innovation and iteration are happening out of necessity." He then regales me with stories of inmates creating tattoo guns out of tape players and heating water without a microwave. In prison, terms like DIY, makers, hacking, and minimum viable product come to life every day.
What if the resourcefulness and hustle currently trapped behind bars could flood back into a nation that needs it? The labor potential of these soon-to-be returned citizens could be as profound as getting an 8-year-old excited about tech. And the payoff could come much sooner.