Prepare for the softer side of Charles and David Koch.
The libertarian-leaning billionaires who funded an endless stream of anti-Obamacare ads against Democratic candidates in 2014 are turning their focus to a new mission: galvanizing conservatives to pass meaningful criminal justice reform.
Their policy wish list includes securing more money for public defenders, lessening sentencing disparities that affect the least well off, reforming mandatory minimums, and aiding prisoners so that they can re-enter society after serving time behind bars.
It’s a counterintuitive push for the Kochs, known for more than bankrolling Republican campaigns than bettering the lives of ex-cons, with an unusual coalition of supporters.
As a part of the effort, the Koch brothers are bringing together conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, and the Federalist Society with unlikely allies such as the Pew Charitable Trust, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Interest in the issue isn’t new for the Kochs, but until now it has paled compared to the resources they’ve poured into political campaigns and support for conservative economic policy.
Quietly over the past decade, a Koch Industries spokesman told The Daily Beast, the Kochs have poured seven figures in donations toward criminal justice reform, mainly through the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. As a point of comparison, the Kochs spent at least $8.5 million on political campaigns in 2014 alone—to the benefit of Republicans across the country, and the dismay of Democrats.
The Kochs say they’re concerned about mass incarceration, too many criminal laws, and a system that disproportionately weighs on the poor and minorities. And over the next year, they promise to refocus on criminal justice reform.
“We do believe we can be one of many thought leaders on this issue,” Mark Holden, a senior VP and general counsel at Koch Industries, told The Daily Beast. “We encourage dialogue to find common ground and, as we have for more than a decade, we will continue to collaborate with all people and groups of good faith to bring about positive change in our criminal justice system.”
In the wake of unrest due to police killings in Ferguson and Staten Island, the Kochs also see their work as helping to reduce the tension between law enforcement and citizens in America today. The Koch brothers and their associated organizations envision a holistic approach to reforming the criminal justice system: one that changes that way America treats the accused during the pre-trial process as much as it helps de-stigmatize inmates who have served their sentences.
“We are hopeful that by addressing overcriminalization, the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve will improve,” Holden said. “Criminal justice reform is not a conservative or liberal issue, or a rich or poor issue, although the disadvantaged are the most negatively impacted by the abuses in our criminal justice system.”
Through their foundation and related entities, five Koch staffers work full- or part-time on criminal justice issues. But they could not pledge that the amount spent on criminal justice reform in 2015 would definitely exceed that of previous years. “We can confirm it will be in the same range as previous years,” a Koch spokesperson said.
But given the influence the Koch name now has, their emphasis on the issue comes with consequence. It gives cover to Republican politicians and candidates everywhere to pursue criminal justice reform—after all, who could be considered a squishy moderate if they agree with the Kochs, so long vilified by the left? Still, the emphasis on the issue comes with consequence. And it sends a signal to the groups who receive funds from the Kochs that they’re trying to pursue the issue.
For example, Generation Opportunity, a Koch-affiliated libertarian group that targets young voters, is already collaborating with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to produce a documentary on a man unjustly ensnared by mandatory minimums.
And reform groups are more than happy to incorporate the Kochs—and their funds—into their issue campaigns. David Koch had been a longtime and annual supporter of FAMM, said group spokesman Mike Riggs: “They’re super eager.”
Same too with the American Civil Liberties Union: “The ACLU has a long history of partnering with all kinds of organizations and individuals that can sometimes look unusual on the outside,” said Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU’s campaign to end mass incarceration. “Mass incarceration is a huge problem, it’s very broad, and we’re delighted that the Kochs and many others on both sides of the aisle are interested in working on this issue.”
The ACLU and the Kochs are discussing proposals for funding, “and if we can find opportunities to collaborate on that,” Holcomb said, “that’s something we’d certainly be open to.”
As a start, the ACLU and Koch entities organized three panels last year on the problems with mass incarceration. Koch groups also collaborated with the ACLU on the issue of providing lawyers to those who can’t afford it.
The Kochs are aware that pursuing criminal justice reform will make them appear less political. After all, striking down mandatory minimums and slamming sentencing disparities has traditionally been a purview of the left.
And it could put Koch opponents in an uncomfortable position. A spokesperson for frequent Koch critic Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, didn’t respond to a Daily Beast inquiry about whether he’d be open to work with the Kochs on this issue.
Other longtime critics just aren’t buying it. Tia Lessin, who co-directed the documentary Citizen Koch, which was critical of the brothers’ use of money in politics, dismissed their criminal justice efforts.
“Over the years, the Kochs have deployed a small fortune to attack laws and public policies that protect society’s most vulnerable—the sick, the elderly, the working poor. This is the latest in a PR campaign to re-brand the billionaire extremists as men who care about ‘the disadvantaged,’” Lessin said.
And Robert Greenwald, the filmmaker behind Koch Brothers Exposed, pointed out that Kochs had spent millions and millions on Republican candidates who might oppose criminal justice reform, far more than on the issue of criminal justice reform itself.
“I look forward to the day the Kochs… instruct their staff to no longer fund candidates who work against improving the safety of Americans,” Greenwald said. “The Kochs’ words about criminal justice cannot be taken seriously until they back up their words with their dollars by ceasing to fund the numerous organizations, think tanks, and elected officials who believe locking up more and more people will make us safer.”
Still, with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, the matter of criminal justice reform might be one of the few issues of potential collaboration. It’s one where the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation can find common ground, where lefty favorite New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker can work with libertarian Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
With the partisanship of the 2010 midterms now four years behind us, and just two years left in the Obama presidency; with the country seized by a collective conversation on the dignity of minorities—this just might be a moment when the Kochs’ criminal justice reform efforts take hold.
Disclosure: Five years ago, the author received a 10-week Koch Summer Fellowship.