The billionaire mogul Koch Brothers have made headlines in recent months for two reasons: the staggering amount they plan to spend backing conservatives in the 2016 election, and their push for an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system.
“The greatest infringement on individual liberty and the poor is in the criminal justice system,” Koch Industries executive Mark Holden declared at a recent conference on criminal justice reform in Washington, DC. “A great way to combat poverty in a more systematic way is reducing the size of prisons and using the criminal justice system to enhance public safety. We need to make it consistent with the Bill of Rights, and honor the dignity of the individual. We need to understand that if you fall down, if you falter and make a mistake, it doesn’t mean you can’t be redeemed. Getting back to those core values will be a positive change for everybody.”
When ThinkProgress asked if these “core values” determine which candidates the Koch brothers support financially, Holden replied, “Yeah. This is part of our freedom agenda.”
“We support candidates who advance freedom for all, and this is a key component of that. It’s very important to us,” he added.
But in recent elections, the Koch Brothers have thrown their financial weight behind candidates who have a record of putting more people in prison, keeping them there for longer and spending more money on mass incarceration. By giving large direct donations and by funneling money through their complex web of proxy groups, they’ve backed so-called ‘tough on crime’ candidates even as they call publicly for a move away from that philosophy. This contradiction raises questions about the Koch brothers’ place in the bipartisan criminal justice reform coalition and who they will support in 2016 and beyond. [Center For American Progress, which is affiliated with ThinkProgress, has received funding from the bipartisan coalition.]
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has long been a darling of the Koch brothers, who heavily supported his races to win and keep his seat in 2010, 2011 and 2014. After David Koch famously declared, “We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more,” Walker’s 2014 reelection campaign was one of the top recipients of Koch Industries cash. The Koch-funded organizations Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth also spent hundreds of thousands defending Walker from a recall effort.
But Walker’s record stands in direct contrast to the Koch’s criminal justice reform values. During his nine years in the state house, from 1993 to 2002, he authored or co-sponsored dozens of bills to make more activities crimes, increase mandatory minimum sentences, and curb the possibility of parole for many offenders. When Wisconsin faced a prison overcrowding crisis, instead of looking at who could be safely paroled, he co-sponsored and voted for bills to ship inmates to private prisons out of state. He then introduced, but failed to pass, several bills to privatize prisons in-state — a policy that provides a financial incentive for growing the inmate population.
As governor, Walker has been no different. In 2011, he threw out laws passed by his predecessor that allowed low-level, nonviolent offenders to earn early release through work and good behavior. He also changed a law granting compassionate release for severely ill inmates so only those with a terminal diagnosis from two doctors could apply.
The number of parolees has also plummeted under his Administration, with the Parole Board Members appointed by Walker denying the vast majority of petitions from prisoners.
Under Walker’s governorship, spending on prisons eclipsed the dollars allocated for higher education for the first time in state history. It’s these policies and others that have led conservative commentators to call Walker an “old-fashioned ‘law and order’ Republican.”
Louisiana puts more of its population in prison than any other state in the nation and any other country in the world. Nearly two-thirds of those prisoners are doing time for a drug crime or other non-violent offense.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who enjoyed direct donations from Koch Industries in 2007 and 2009 as well as generous funding from some of the Koch network’s front groups, has opposed most efforts to reform the notorious criminal justice system in his state.
Last year, he vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have made more inmates eligible for parole and redirected the money saved from their early release to fund rehabilitation programs. Jindal called the bill “a step too far that could put our citizens at risk.”
The criminal justice reform bills he did sign into law were so watered down by the time of passage — thanks in part to threats from the Governor’s office — that they are not expected to reduce the state’s exploding prison population.
In nearly eight years in office, Jindal has only pardoned a tiny handful of inmates, though his office has received hundreds of requests. He has also come under fire from human rights groups like Amnesty International for continuing the practice of keeping inmates in solitary confinement for decades on end — a practice the United Nations says “clearly amounts to torture.”
As embattled Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) struggles to defend his newly signed “religious freedom” law, less attention is going to his recently unveiled budget for the next two years. Among other provisions, the plan would spend $43 million more on operations and staffing at the state’s existing prisons, and allocate an additional $51 million to build new cells “in order to meet projected increases in the corrections population.” The budget cuts tens of thousands of dollars, however, from juvenile transition programs, the parole board and staff training — and includes no additional funding for drug treatment, mentoring, and other services “to promote the successful integration of the offender into the community.”
“When I discovered the governor was seeking more dollars for prisons, I have to say I was a little shocked,” said state Rep. Vernon Smith, who represents Gary, IN. “I had believed the state was on a move towards backing prevention and local corrections versus the state allotting even more funds for its penal system.”
Pence did sign a criminal justice reform bill two years ago that aimed to reduce incarceration of low-level offenders and allow some ex-offenders to scrub their criminal records. But the Governor’s new budget doesn’t adequately fund these changes, which lawmakers warn will cause the reforms to fail.
The governor also signed bills mandating harsher sentences for computer-based crimes and hazing. An earlier version of the bill would have relaxed sentences for non-violent drug crimes, but those provisions were amended due to pressure from Pence, who wanted to “send a message that the state is tough on drug dealers.”
Governor Pence’s political career has been buoyed by the Koch brothers’ support, through outside spending and donations to his campaigns, invitations to private conferences where he can hobnob with political kingmakers, and a revolving door between his administration and the greater Koch Industries network. Pence is currently toying with the idea of running for president.
Though a much less high profile governor than Walker, Jindal or Pence, with no known plans to run for president, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has both enjoyed substantial campaign support from the Koch network and supported policies counter to their criminal justice “freedom agenda.”
Koch-funded groups like Americans for Responsible Leadership and American Encore poured millions into securing the governor’s mansion for Ducey in 2014, in part by financing television ads praising his record and blasting his opponents.
After taking office this January, Ducey pushed a budget that increases corrections spending by more than $52 million, authorizes construction of a new, private, 3,000 bed prison, and calls for adding another 500 beds to the maximum security wing. It adds no money to the state’s program to treat inmates struggling with addiction, nor to services to help ex-offenders transition back into society. Critics have blasted the Governor for boosting funding for the prison industrial complex while authorizing deep cuts to primary and higher education.