Tags: charles koch | criminal justice | prison | cory booker | george soros

Charles Koch Crusading With Liberals for Prison Reform

Charles Koch Crusading With Liberals for Prison Reform
Charles Koch. (Bo Rader/MCT/Landov)

By    |   Thursday, 05 March 2015 12:06 PM

Charles Koch over the past few years has become, along with his brother David, one of the key driving forces in conservative politics, but now he's also joining a new team: A widening group of left-leaning politicians, foundations and others in hopes of reeling in the nation's out-of-control criminal justice system.

"One of my heroes was Frederick Douglass, [who] said 'I would unite with anyone to do right and with nobody to do wrong,'" Koch told Politico Magazine, explaining why his new crusade has linked him  with such archrivals as New Jersey liberal Sen. Cory Booker and wealthy progressive donor George Soros, among others.

"We’ve worked with unlikely bedfellows. … But I would say we have gotten the most support in criminal justice reform."

Among his latest activities, Koch, who is tied on Forbes with his brother as the sixth-wealthiest man in America, has been pulling together a coalition of advocacy groups from both the left and the right to fight the "overcriminalization of America."

He has also underwritten a documentary screening at the Newseum about Weldon Angelos, a marijuana dealer serving a 55-year sentence, which even the judge in the case called "unjust and cruel," and is working to train attorneys to help the nation's poor.

Further, this month, Mark Holden, Koch's general counsel, will join with former Obama administration official Van Jones for the #Cut50 Bipartisan Summit to explore ways to reduce the population in America's prisons by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

Koch insists his new partnerships aren't anything strange or un-American, but make sense in the fight to decrease the nation's prison population.

He refers to 1995 case against his business, Koch Industries, as part of the reason for his bipartisan crusade.

Prosecutors had pressured a fired employee into testifying in a case against four other Koch workers, claiming  they had covered up an infraction at one of the Koch plants. Koch was offered a deal to either let the four employees be charged and convicted, or allow his own business to take a hit.

Instead, Koch said he told his lawyers to fight. Eventually, the 97 felony charges were dropped, but Koch paid a $10 million settlement.

"If that can happen with us, with our resources and what we did to defend our people, what happens to people in a company that doesn’t defend them?" said Koch, a lifelong libertarian. "Or even worse, to poor people who get caught in something and have no recourse?"

The trend in bipartisan cooperation on prison reform is also apparent in Washington, where senators like Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Patrick Leahy are both arguing against tough sentencing guidelines and for helping felons re-enter society.

Booker, still a freshman senator, has also found help for his campaign on criminal justice reform through Koch.

"I’ve worked with their chief counsel, with Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich. I talked to people involved in numerous conservative think tanks, Christian evangelicals and groups from fiscal conservatives to libertarians," Booker told Politico. "It’s clear to me that the zeitgeist is growing, and that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

But taking on the criminal justice system is a daunting endeavor. In the United States, there are more than 2.3 million people behind bars, including one out of every 16 African-American men and one out of 36 Latino men, according to a Pew Center report.

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and makes up 25 percent of the world's prisoners, even though Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world's population, Politico reports.

Further, criminologist Todd Clear, a provost of Rutgers University, said that the odds of a black child born in the United States eventually ending up in prison are 1 in 3.

There are also mounting costs to keeping prisoners behind bars. At approximately $40,000 per inmate today, the country's inmate population is costing American taxpayers about $80 billion more than it cost for most of the 20th century.

Booker told Politico that in places like his home city of Newark, black youths are for the most part not able to escape one day being in prison and not being able to move on after.

But long sentences "have no impact on public safety," said Clear. "High rates of incarceration make [minority] communities less safe, not more safe."

Further, "three-strike" laws took hold in the early 1990s, and along with the mandatory sentencing laws of the '80s have added to the crowded prisons — and their costs.

Criminal law is also regulating behavior that was never intended to be treated as criminal, said Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). His group has received some of the funding from the Kochs over the past 10 years, but the government is increasingly focusing on "everything from substance abuse — which is not a classic crime, not something that derives from the biblical sense of wrongdoing — to overregulation."

Koch- and Soros-supported groups are backing a wide range of bipartisan bills, including the Leahy-Paul Justice Safety Valve act, which will allow judges to impose lower than mandatory sentences.

Booker and Paul are also pushing the REDEEM Act, which would make it easier for juvenile criminal records to be cleared and bans on federal benefits to be lifted for low-level offenders.

Koch and Soros, separately, have supported the American Civil Liberties Union and the NACDL in creating the John Adams Project in 2008 to encourage civilian lawyers to help in the defense of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The program led to a NACDL grant from Koch for training for attorneys in impoverished areas.

"The Kochs believe deeply in the right to counsel, even for the most unpopular defendants," Reimer said.

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Charles Koch is still a key driving force in conservative politics, but now he's joining a new team: A widening group of left-leaning politicians and others in hopes of reeling in the nation's out-of-control criminal justice system, Politico reports.
charles koch, criminal justice, prison, cory booker, george soros
Thursday, 05 March 2015 12:06 PM
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