Last week lawmakers lined up to promote their criminal justice reform bills at an event, which included both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and Piper Kerman, who wrote a memoir about her incarceration in a federal prison that inspired the groundbreaking Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” Since crime is down and interest is high in decreasing the price tag for overcrowded prisons it is the right time to reform the U.S. penal system.
The United States imprisons the highest percentage of its citizens in the world. While the United States represents about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We are talking about 2.4 million people—a 500% increase over the past thirty years. Combining the number of men, women and children in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is under some form of correctional control. And this is costing tax payers $39 billion a year.
Republican Senator Rob Portman and Democratic Senator Al Franken are reintroducing a bill this year to provide more mental health services to prisoners and to fund specific mental health courts that emphasize treatment over jail time. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, to expunge nonviolent criminal records of Juvenile offenders. Sens. Dick Durbin, Pat Leahy, Mike Lee and Rand Paul have all endorsed legislation to give federal judges more flexibility when sentencing non-violent offenders.
The most serious charge against 51% of inmates in US Federal prisons is a drug offense. Only 4% are in for robbery and only 1% are in for homicide. The most serious charge against 20% of state-prison inmates is a drug offense, larger than any other single category of offense in state prisons.
Mark Holden, the lawyer for the Koch brothers told the gathering that the Koch brothers have already signaled that prison reform will be a major policy priority of theirs this year and are planning to invest millions in criminal justice reform. They have been involved in criminal justice reform for more than 10 years since a few of their employees were prosecuted for violating environmental regulations in Texas in the 1990s. They have already been active in providing defense lawyers for poor people.
Their wish list includes more money for public defenders, lessening sentencing disparities that affect the least well off, reforming mandatory minimums, and helping prisoners re-enter society after serving time. They are also bringing together conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, and the Federalist Society with unlikely allies such as the ACLU. Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU’s campaign to end mass incarceration said, “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.”
Given the influence the Koch brothers have with Republicans, their emphasis on prison reform gives cover to Republican politicians and candidate. They spent over $8.5 million in 2014 on political campaigns benefiting Republicans; hopefully, their current war chest will actually benefit real prison reform. If they are serious about their intention, they deserve plaudits from the left.