Unlikely bedfellows unite on criminal justice reform

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
In this photo composite: (L) Charles Koch in 2012, (R) Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn in 2015. (Photo compostite by Yahoo News, photos by Bo Rader/Witchita Eagle/AP Photo, J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

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.

After his remarks, Franken took to the podium. At one point, the liberal Minnesota senator was trying to recall the name of a documentary series he liked about the prison system.

“You know when you watch MSNBC on the weekends,” he began, alluding to the staunchly liberal cable channel and looking at his fellow panelists, which included Holden, conservative activist Pat Nolan and Constitution Project board member David Keene, who used to lead the National Rifle Association. “I don’t know if you guys ever watch MSNBC,” Franken said, to laughs. He then described the documentary show.

Lockup,” Holden offered. “It’s one of my favorite shows, actually.”