Billionaire Republican Party donor Charles Koch wants to change the criminal justice system in America.
Following the 1995 case between Koch Industries and the U.S. government, where a federal grand jury indicted the company on 97 felonies involving alleged environmental crimes at an oil refinery, Koch began to think about “how the little guy who doesn’t have Koch’s resources deals with prosecutions like that.”
Koch Industries spent six years defending itself, at a price tag of tens of millions of dollars, he says. All but one of the charges were dropped, and the company agreed to pay a $10 million settlement.
“It was a really, really torturous experience,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s chief counsel. “We learned first hand what happens when anyone gets into the criminal justice system.”
The experience caused Koch to study the justice system on a federal and state level to see if it has been “over-criminalized with too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders.”
Koch believes that not only he but everyone is suffering in such a system.
For the past 10 years, Koch has supported efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to train defense lawyers and alter the "tough on crime" mentality which has resulted in a tripling of the incarceration rate since the 1980s, and has removed rights of the poor to a legal defense.
Koch plans to give more monetary support to this effort in the future.
“Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch told The Wichita Eagle. “And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged.”
The criminal justice system needs reform, “especially for the disadvantaged,” Koch said, “making it fair and making [criminal] sentences more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”
Holden said minorities have felt most of the pain of the justice system’s “tough on crime” approach.
“It definitely appears to have a racial angle, intended or not,” Holden said.
Holden laid out the concerns surrounding federal and state governments:
▪ Too many nonviolent offenders have been sent to prison for too long. The U.S. incarcerates 2.2 million people. Another 65 million — 1 in 4 adults — now have criminal records, according to the association.
▪ The economy has been damaged by making it difficult for offenders to get jobs once they are out of prison. The social stigma and routine background checks, according to the association, “has made it all but impossible for a person with a criminal record to leave the past behind.”
▪ Millions of former offenders have been denied voting and other rights long after they have paid their debt to society.
▪ The Sixth Amendment right to an attorney has been impaired by allowing public defender offices to be underfunded and overwhelmed, including by government prosecutors with more far more resources at their disposal.
“We have more of America now in prison than they ever did [in South Africa] in apartheid,” Holden added. “Let that swirl around in your head for a while.”
Koch does not stand alone in wanting reform to the justice system.
CNN reports several prospective Republican 2016 candidates have been supportive of sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders, including Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Florida), Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).