WASHINGTON — Supporters of criminal justice reform have found an unexpected ally in their efforts to reduce America’s massive prison population: the notoriously conservative Koch brothers. Yet a new investigation suggests the billionaires still support “tough on crime” politicians whose policies contribute to the expansion of mass incarceration.
In recent public statements, Charles and David Koch or their representatives have affirmed their support for reducing prison populations and opening up new opportunities to the formerly incarcerated — statements that line up with their avowed libertarian ethics. For example, on Nov. 3 the Koch brothers appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where Charles told Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough:
“Somebody goes to jail, and they get out and no one will hire them. And so what do they do? The only way they can survive is to go back to crime … We’ve got to change that if we want to break this cycle of poverty and dependency.”
Listen to the MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ Airs Koch Brothers Interview:
But a Nov. 3 report by Lee Fang, an investigative journalist writing for The Intercept, states that “Koch money continues to finance election-year efforts that promote tough-on-crime politics.” Among the advertisements that the brothers’ money funded is an advertisement widely aired in Pennsylvania demanding that judges impose longer prison sentences:
In Louisiana, the Kochs supported Sen. David Vitter’s bid for governor by paying for an advertisement attacking President Obama’s clemency program, which has been responsible for releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders from prison:
Fang also noted that “Koch Industries has been widely hailed for donating to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and partnering with groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums … and other left-leaning groups.” But he added that the Kochs are likely more concerned with guarding their own interests than protecting or decreasing the prison population:
“Koch’s interest in criminal justice reform was sparked not by the plight of overcrowded prisons or racial disparities in law enforcement, but by the company’s own environmental crimes. In 2000, Koch was indicted over claims that it had polluted huge amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen, from a Texas refinery and then attempted to cover up the crime.”
A 2014 investigation of Koch Industries by Rolling Stone revealed a history of “pollution, speculation, law-bending and self-righteousness,” including “record civil and criminal environmental penalties” under Charles Koch’s leadership.
“What they’re all concerned about is money,” Matthew Menendez, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which tracks judicial elections, told The Intercept. Indeed, Fang reports:
“The Republican State Leadership Committee, which is sponsoring the group behind the pro-Republican judicial ads, is funded this year by Koch Industries, General Electric, General Motors, Eli Lilly and other large corporations that have lobbied to minimize awards against them in class-action suits.”
Further noting that issues related to class-action lawsuits may be too complicated to galvanize support in a short political ad, these donors are instead channeling funds toward campaigns toward judicial elections that will benefit their bottomlines. Ultimately, though, Menendez said: “The collateral damage is to criminal justice reform.”