Should We Trust The Koch Brothers And Their Prison Reform Campaign?

July 17, 2015  |  

Should we trust well-known conservative funders the Koch brothers when it comes to their interest in prison reform?

It’s a question that some folks are asking after Van Jones, former Special Advisor for Green Jobs for the Obama Administration, and Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, appeared on “Democracy Now.” The two talked about their partnership to make the justice and prison systems more fair. They were guests on the program to discuss, among other things, the SAFE Justice Act, which seeks to reduce recidivism, reform sentencing and decriminalize certain laws on the books. The bill is currently being considered by the House.

It might come as a surprise to some that in addition to being a union buster and anti-Obamacare commercial funder, Charles Koch, who co-owns Koch Industries with his brother David, also considers himself a prison reformer. According to The Hill, his aims are to help those who are disenfranchised. Some of his stated goals include: returning voting rights to nonviolent felons; advocating for more money and resources for public defenders; and reforming mandatory minimum sentencing. Earlier this year, he pledged to make those changes a priority in 2015; and so far, he has galvanized bipartisan support by way of some of the unlikeliest of allies. That includes conservative politicians and hardline groups like the Heritage Foundation and ALEC, as well as left-leaning groups and activists like the American Civil Liberties Union and Van Jones.

Jones and Holden’s appearance on “Democracy Now” comes as President Obama has aggressively taken on the issue of mass incarceration. In the last couple of weeks, President Obama has reduced the sentences of 46 non-violent inmates who are serving time for various drug offenses. He has made an historic trip to a prison in Oklahoma. And he has given a speech before the NAACP in which, among things, he made a plug for sentencing reform. In the speech before the NAACP, President Obama also shouted out all of the bipartisan support for reform within the criminal justice system.

“This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together. It’s 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. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it. There are states from Texas and South Carolina to California and Connecticut who have acted to reduce their prison populations over the last five years and have seen their crime rates fall. That’s good news.”

That is good news, but what’s the bad news?

As noted by Leon Neyfakh in an article from April 2015 for Salon titled, “The Koch Brothers Want It Both Ways,” the Koch brothers’ interest in reforming the criminal justice system may have less to do with helping the disenfranchised, and more to do with a yet to be identified political strategy, which could possibly bite folks in the behind in the end. His proof is a New York Republican fundraiser dinner where David Koch pledged to spend nearly $900 million of the brothers’ loot during the 2016 election to support Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for the White House. Walker is best known for destroying collective bargaining in Wisconsin, but as Neyfakh notes, Walker has also not been a friend to criminal justice reform.

As Neyfakh writes:

Writing in the Nation in February, Scott Keyes ran through Walker’s record on the issue and concluded that, over the course of his political career in Wisconsin, Walker had passed one law after another that resulted in more people being sent to prison for longer. “In just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole,” Keyes reported.

In addition to supporting a candidate for president with a pretty dismal track record of reforming the criminal justice system for the better, the Koch brothers have also been associated with some pretty contradictory anti-crime legislation. Such legislation hasn’t helped those populations most impacted by the criminal justice system. According to this piece by John Nichols, entitled “How ALEC Took Florida’s ‘License to Kill’ Law National,” it was the Koch brothers who funded ALEC, which would help to take Stand Your Ground laws national. And writer Kathie Halper reported for Salon back in 2013 that Stand Your Ground laws were more likely to help White and particularly affluent defendants than Black people.

So why would the Koch brothers be interested in prison reform now? Perhaps, it is just a matter of good press? As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted back in 2013, this softer, more classic liberal side of the Koch brothers might have something to do with their pet lobbying group’s attempt at reinvention. As Milbank writes:

It reported that the group has lost almost 400 state legislators in the past two years and more than 60 corporations. Its income fell a third short of projections in the first six months of this year. To raise money, the documents showed, ALEC considered expanding its policy portfolio to gambling, and, concerned about potential tax problems with its designation as a 501(c)(3) charity, it is considering 501(c)(4) status, which would allow it to lobby more openly.

Or perhaps there is a financial incentive here, as noted by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig in a recent article for the Republic titled, “Why Conservatives’ Prison Reform Plans Won’t Work.” The Koch brothers’ interest in prison reform might have to do with helping both state, federal and private prisons control the spiraling cost associated with incarceration, particularly as it pertains to locking up those with health and mental problems. As Bruenig states:

Thus, the politics of cost-cutting harms the very people that prison reform should aim to help. It isn’t that prison sentences shouldn’t be reduced, or that mass incarceration shouldn’t come to an end, or that the conditions of prisoners shouldn’t be vastly improved. But poor and mentally ill people who wind up in prison will still be poor and mentally ill even if the prison system is reformed. So the focus shouldn’t be on slashing spending, but improving the lives of people before, during, and after prison.

Whatever is behind their motivation, the partnership between these unlikely bedfellows is really interesting to say the least. I get that we all have to sometimes work with people and groups we don’t agree with politically (or even personally) for the benefit of a bigger goal. But it makes me wonder what had to be traded in order to reform the system?

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