What’s Up with the Koch Brothers and Criminal Justice Reform?

George Lavender

Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch have lent their financial support to a new campaign for criminal justice reform.

Conservative Koch Industries’ inclusion in the list of funders of a new criminal justice reform campaign raised eyebrows when it was announced on Thursday. But one incongruity has flown under the radar: Controversial billionaires Charles and David Koch have strongly backed some of the leading Republican opponents to criminal justice reform.

The $5 million Coalition for Public Safety brings together an unlikely coalition of groups ranging from liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress to right-wing organizations like FreedomWorks for what they themselves call the largest national effort to make the U.S. criminal justice system safer, fairer, and more cost effective.” As the New York Times reports, the announcement has been touted as evidence of a rare show of unity amongst Republicans and Democrats.

For groups traditionally considered opponents, working together has required something of a leap of faith. But they say that they see an opening and are giving the new coalition three years to demonstrate results.

A lot of people throw a lot of things around, and then you try to get things done,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which has been the subject of fierce attacks from the left and has responded in kind. We are just going to put it to the side and hopefully they will as well. We have said all along that we are willing to work with anyone and this shows it.”

Officials at the Center for American Progress said that they did not make the decision to join the partnership lightly given the organization’s clashes and deep differences with both Koch Industries and many of the conservative groups.

We have in the past and will in the future have criticism of the policy agenda of the Koch brother companies, but where we can find common ground on issues, we will go forward,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the center. I think it speaks to the importance of the issue.” Continue reading…

Even the staff of the new organization come from backgrounds working for both political parties. Executive Director Christine Leonard previously worked for both the Obama administration and for Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, while Deputy Director Sekemia Mwonyonyi has worked for Republican Senators Tom Coburn and Mike DeWine.

Much has been made of the apparent cross-party consensus on criminal justice reform that has seen Republicans come out in favor of reforms that would reduce prison sentences for certain crimes.

Among Republicans, Senator Rand Paul in particular won praise for co-authoring bills with Democrats aimed at decreasing the use of mandatory minimums. Senator Paul, who himself received $17,000 from Koch Industries in his successful 2010 election campaign, has said reform is part of the sort of libertarianish message that I’ve always had – that the war on drugs has been unfair and it just turns out that it’s had a real racial component to it.”

The Koch’s backing for the new group is not as out-of-place as it may first seem; the company has previously leant its financial support to other criminal justice reform efforts. But a look at the brothers’ recent political donations shows continued financial support for some of the most prominent opponents of such reform efforts.

Take the Smarter Sentencing Act, which a Vera Justice Institute report last year called a criminal justice Rorschach test.” According to the Institute’s report, people see different things in it. Some see it as a vital and moderate step away from unfair federal drug sentencing provisions … [o]thers see it as a major retreat in the fight against serious drug crime.”

Of the three most prominent Senate Republican opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, two are listed by OpenSe​crets​.org as recipients of Koch Industries money. In the past election alone, the company has contributed $17,900 to Texas Senator John Cornyn’s reelection campaign and $10,000 to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. To put that in context, Senator Cornyn received the third largest total donation from Kochs Industries to a Senate campaign.

Senators Cornyn and Sessions, along with Senator Chuck Grassley, last year wrote an open letter to their Senate colleagues to express concerns’ with the Smarter Sentencing Act. The Senators expressed concern that the Act would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system.”

So why are the Kochs collaborating with groups like the ACLU and Center for American Progress? In January The Daily Beast offered a range of possible reasons.

..given the influence the Koch name now has, their emphasis on the issue comes with consequence. It gives cover to Republican politicians and candidates everywhere to pursue criminal justice reform — after all, who could be considered a squishy moderate if they agree with the Kochs, so long vilified by the left? Still, the emphasis on the issue comes with consequence. And it sends a signal to the groups who receive funds from the Kochs that they’re trying to pursue the issue. Continue reading…

But critics, like Tia Lessin who co-directed the documentary Citizen Koch, are unconvinced by the appearance of bipartisan consensus.

Over the years, the Kochs have deployed a small fortune to attack laws and public policies that protect society’s most vulnerable — the sick, the elderly, the working poor. This is the latest in a PR campaign to re-brand the billionaire extremists as men who care about the disadvantaged,’” Lessin said.

And Robert Greenwald, the filmmaker behind Koch Brothers Exposed, pointed out that Kochs had spent millions and millions on Republican candidates who might oppose criminal justice reform, far more than on the issue of criminal justice reform itself.

I look forward to the day the Kochs… instruct their staff to no longer fund candidates who work against improving the safety of Americans,” Greenwald said. The Kochs’ words about criminal justice cannot be taken seriously until they back up their words with their dollars by ceasing to fund the numerous organizations, think tanks, and elected officials who believe locking up more and more people will make us safer.” Continue reading…

The Daily Beast points out that the Koch’s support for bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts could put Democrats who have previously been vocal opponents of the Kochs in a tricky position.

It also remains to be seen just what kind of reform Koch-backed groups will push for.

In February, Senator Cornyn introduced his own reform bill, the Corrections Act, cosponsored with Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. (Corrections is an acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System.) However, the bill is significantly more limited than the Smarter Sentencing Act, and, as an editorial in the New York Times points out, excludes large sections of the prison population.

The bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith-based groups.)

Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.

The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history. This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American, will be left out. Finally, the bill pushes the use of data-based risk-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects. Continue reading…

As the New York Times points out, the Corrections Act has a much greater likelihood of passing in the new Republican controlled Congress than the Smarter Sentencing Act.

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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