A top Koch Industries official says the corporate giant has become part of a bipartisan coalition contending that the criminal justice system needs reform.
The system puts too many non-violent people in prison, particularly youthful drug offenders, and for too long, and it’s taking away individual freedom and costing society, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Wichita-based Koch Industries, known for its conservative and Libertarian approach to politics.
Holden laid out the position recently in a speech to a Rotary Club luncheon at Botanica.
“Many who have attacked us are now working with us” and trying to see the reform happen, he said.
In an interview after the speech, Holden said, “We all agree that our system is broken.”
Holden, 52, said he wanted stress that the reform he is espousing is focused on non-violent offenders, including those with some drug crimes. He said he is not advocating for decriminalizing marijuana.
“I’m not pro-drug usage,” he said. “But I don’t think we should be so punitive about it.”
Enhancing public safety remains a top priority, Holden said.
Koch sees the position as helping the poor, and the stance also fits with Koch’s philosophy of limited government, especially as it applies to the federal government, he said.
States vary on how well they have embraced criminal justice reforms, he said, adding, “I think here in Kansas we have work to do.”
Overall, he said, states seem to be doing a better job with reform than the federal government. Federal laws generally set longer drug sentences.
Among the few hundred people at the Rotary luncheon were Wichita-based federal prosecutors and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, who brings charges based on state laws.
U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom gave this statement after being asked for comment: “Criminal justice reform is a top priority for President Obama’s administration. The U.S. prison population has grown at an astonishing rate since 1980. The Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime Initiative” includes rethinking mandatory minimum sentences and federal sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders and directing more resources to deterrence and rehabilitation.”
In his Rotary talk, Holden said that the reform position is not meant to be “anti-law enforcement or anti-prosecution. … This not about being soft on crime.”
Still, he said the United States leads the world in putting people in prison and “over-criminalizes behavior,” which raises fiscal and societal costs by hurting the economy and families whose loved ones are “branded for life as criminals.”
Prison populations have soared with a huge expansion of federal law beginning in the 1980s and extending into the 1990s, when the priority was cracking down on crime, he said.
“It’s mostly poor people,” and many with drug offenses, who have been hurt by failed policies that have destroyed families and sent costs rising, he said. Millions of children have lost parents to incarceration.
“There’s also a racial angle,” Holden said, adding that African-Americans account for a disproportionately high number of inmates.
For Kansans, he said, part of solution is contacting their U.S. senators and congressional representatives.
Among other solutions, he said: Making sure that prosecutors don’t over-charge to force plea agreements.
Holden said he wasn’t criticizing the actions of the prosecutors in the audience. In a brief interview after the talk, Bennett, the district attorney, said neither he nor his predecessor, Nola Foulston, have allowed excessive charges against defendants.
Another part of the solution, according to Holden: Addressing sentencing disparities and making sure the punishment fits the crime.
Another: Giving inmates job training, education, drug treatment and mentoring so when they leave prison “they’re a better person than when they came in,” Holden said. “Let’s welcome them back if we can … They’ve paid their debt to society. Let’s not continue to punish them. We need to break the cycle” so they won’t revert to more crime.
Although Koch does background checks on applicants, it hires employees “based on the whole person” and not so much on some non-violent offense they did 15 or 20 years ago, he said.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.