Clive McFarlane: Strange bedfellows in quest for justice system reforms
It is no great revelation to say that when it comes to fairness and justice, our actions do not always match our words.
There were a great many South Carolinians who knew the Confederate battle flag was an affront to African Americans, and yet it took the massacre of nine people in one of the most peaceful of places in a community — a church — to convince the good people of that state that this flag should not be flying on the grounds of their capitol building.
The pre-massacre ambivalence to the Confederate flag can be seen as our acceptance of the injustice and unfairness in our criminal justice system that has led to some 2.2 million Americans, many for nonviolent crimes, being locked away in our nation’s jails and prisons.
But here, too, we might be seeing a sea change.
The escalating cost of incarceration and the high recidivism rate of those who have served time are helping to give traction to concerns raised and recommendations being made by traditional social justice organizations such as the Sentencing Project, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Massachusetts, activists and their supporters are rallying behind a bill in the Legislature — the Justice Reinvestment Act — that would reform the state’s criminal justice system. The bill calls for an end to mass incarceration and reinvestment in schools and job creation.
In Washington, President Barack Obama, who in 2010 signed a law that reduced the disparities in sentences between crack and powder cocaine, is now gaining strong bipartisan support to further relax federal sentencing guidelines.
But perhaps the most unlikely supporters of sentencing guideline reform are Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have spent millions trying to scuttle the president’s agenda.
If the Koch brothers’ involvement in sentencing reform surprises you, maybe it shouldn’t, according Worcester, Massachusetts, native Mark Holden, who is senior vice president, general counsel and secretary for Koch Industries Inc.
“Charles Koch and Koch Industries are involved in criminal justice reform because it is the right thing to do from a moral, constitutional, and fiscal perspective,” Mr. Holden said by email Tuesday.
“We have been involved in these issues for over a decade because we want to help people improve their lives and remove obstacles to opportunity for all Americans, especially the disadvantaged.
“We believe in expansive individual liberties as set forth in the Bill of Rights and limited government. I am interested because of my experiences working in the Worcester County House of Corrections and seeing the human costs firsthand.
“If you care about the Bill of Rights and removing obstacles to opportunity for the disadvantaged, you have to be involved in criminal justice reform. There is no bigger government infringement on life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness than through the criminal justice system. We over-criminalize certain nonviolent activities, over prosecute, over sentence, over incarcerate, and then overburden people as they try to return to society, which can greatly hinder their ability to lead a productive life.
“We are especially focused on nonviolent offenders, especially low level drug offenders. We want to make sure that our system works so we enhance public safety, honor the Bill of Rights, and treat everyone in the system with dignity and respect, including victims, law enforcement, the accused, the convicted, and their families.”
What do you say to this, if you are among those who have been concerned about the Koch brothers and their financial support of conservative groups pushing economic and social policies that some say are extremely disadvantageous to many of the same individuals they are trying to help with sentencing reform?
“In this struggle to address our incarceration rate, and because of the immediacy to act quickly, all allies are welcome,” Carl Williams, a lawyer with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said diplomatically.
“People want to be on the side of justice.”
Mark Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said that “from a conservative, libertarian viewpoint,” particularly in how the state uses its power against individuals with limited resources, the Koch brothers’ involvement makes sense.
“I don’t know how much of it will trickle down to their conservative base, however,” he said.
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Koch brothers have the money and influence to change things. And what matters is whether they are doing it for the right reasons.
Clive McFarlane is a columnist for The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.