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January 31, 2015

Imagining a SuperBowl party with the Koch brothers, Al Franken, Rob Portman, David Keene, Piper Kerman and Van Jones

The silly idea reflected in the title of this post is my effort to put a timely spin on what is becoming an old story: lots of folks from lots of different perspectives are coming together to talk about the need for criminal justice reforms. And, as detailed in this press piece, many of these folks got together this past week at an event. Here are the details:

Only one issue in Washington right now could bring together the Koch brothers’ top lawyer, an environmental activist, the former head of the NRA and Sen. Al Franken.  Criminal justice reform.  In a city best known for dysfunction and discord, the issue has stood out as a rare area of common ground between Democrats and Republicans.

And at a panel on reforming the criminal justice system hosted by the Constitution Project advocacy group on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the bipartisan array of speakers seemed genuinely nonplussed by the harmony across an otherwise gaping political divide.

Van Jones, the former Obama administration official and liberal commentator, was seated next to Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and the face of the conservative mega-donors’ efforts to lower incarceration rates in the country. (The Koch brothers are planning to spend a reported $889 million during the 2016 election cycle, a figure that puts their operation in the same financial ballpark as the two political parties themselves.)

“That should be a headline in itself,” Jones said of he and Holden sitting at the same table. “Cats and dogs sleeping together,” Holden chimed in. “I don’t know about sleeping together,” Jones quipped.

Jones said he hoped politicians would seize on this moment — when crime is down and interest is high — to reform the U.S. penal system so that the country no longer imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation.  “This is a time for real comprehensive change,” Jones said. “It’s very, very rare that we have a moment where the stars are aligned in this way.”  He later warmly embraced the Kochs' lawyer.

Lawmakers lined up to promote their criminal justice reform bills at the event, which also included remarks from Piper Kerman, the author whose memoir about her experience in federal prison inspired the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Al Franken, a Democrat, spoke about a bill they’re reintroducing this year to provide more mental health services to prisoners and to fund special mental health courts that emphasize treatment over doing time. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said he believes lawmakers should review every federal regulation or law that carries prison time to decide if it’s merited or not. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who introduced a bill to expunge nonviolent criminal records of juvenile offenders that he’s co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), sat with audience members, saying he wanted to listen and learn.

Holden told the crowd that the Koch brothers have been involved in criminal justice reform for more than 10 years, after a few of their employees were prosecuted for violating environmental regulations in Texas in the 1990s.  (The charges against the employees were later dropped, and Koch Industries settled with the government.)  The Kochs have since invested in providing defense lawyers for poor people and other reform efforts, and have signaled it will be a major policy priority this year.  Their support could lend momentum to the bipartisan reform bills that have already been introduced. “What we should be using the prison system for is people we’re afraid of,” Holden said, not for nonviolent offenders.

I am always pleased to see talk of significant criminal justice reform making headlines. But as I have often said before (and as I likely will say again a lot in the months ahead), "talking the talk" about criminal justice reform is always much easier than "walking the walk" especially at the federal level.  So, if you come upon this notable cast of characters at your SuperBowl party this weekend, you should find it much easier to talk about criminal justice reform than to predict when all this talk will result in significant legislative action.

We are coming on five years since the libertarian/small-government wing of the GOP began talking a lot about significant sentencing reforms (right after the 2010 election cycle).  And yet, circa 2015, we still have not yet seen any proposals for "real comprehensive change" making the rounds on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, even (much-too) small proposed changes reflected in bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act have gained precious little momentum.

I am cautiously hopeful that the involvement of major capitalists like the Kochs will help fuel the work of major activists to turn all the talk into real action. But, ever the realistic (though optimistic) cynic, I am not expecting Congress to enact any truly landmark criminal justice reform legislation anytime soon.

January 31, 2015 at 11:01 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The rent seekers from both sides of the aisle are getting together. That means only one thing. The public is in for a royal hosing.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 31, 2015 5:43:18 PM

So much palpable skepticism suggests it's still too early to cue prosecutors, law-n-order opportunists seeking political office, prison-guard unions and lobbyists for corporate prison owners to do their predictably effective death-to-reform dance.

Especially the proscutors ... because hyper-punitive prison sentences aren't just for keeping dangerous people away from the rest of us ... or enriching prison owners/shareholders ... or providing jobs in the law-enforcement/prison-industrial complex ... or deterring latent criminals from going bad ... or even avenging woefully aggrieved victims. It's there, in spades, primarily to give prosecutors overwhelming leverage sufficient to compel plea agreements from citizens whether they be guilty, wrongly accused or innocent. And they'll fight to the last man to keep such a powerful lever.

Posted by: John K | Feb 1, 2015 12:24:30 PM

While federal criminal/sentencing laws are in egregious need of reform, and are definitely the laws most likely to affect rich, corporate types like the Koch bros, in the end the federal system is a drop in the bucket in terms of incarceration rates. So I'd also like to see more proposals to use federal leverage/funding to coerce reforms in the states. There is not a law enforcement agency in the country that could survive comfortably if it was taken off the federal teat. That means that Congress can basically act as a super-legislature on criminal issues any time it wants to. I'd like it to see it using that power judiciously but more actively.

Posted by: anon | Feb 2, 2015 11:03:34 AM

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