How Can Businesses and Communities Work Together on Criminal Justice?

August 24, 2018

By removing barriers to opportunity for the least advantaged, believing in individual liberty, and caring for communities, people from different walks of life can unite to help people improve their lives.

That was the message from Mark Holden, general counsel, Koch Industries, on Thursday during a live webcast for Koch employees hosted by Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, the latest in a series of company-wide conversations begun earlier in 2018 to discuss issues in society. Criminal justice reform is the right thing to do morally, it makes sense fiscally, and it makes sense constitutionally, Holden said.

Panelists for the event included John Koufos, national director of reentry initiatives, Right on Crime; Cynthia Roseberry, reentry education vice president, Wilberforce University; and David Windecher, criminal defense attorney, The Windecher Firm.

While noting that the number of incarcerated Americans has increased from 500,000 to approximately 2 million today, Holden also remarked that the United States spends three to four times more per capita on prison than on schools.

“Call it mass incarceration, call it overincarceration. What we’re talking about is the proliferation of these really long prison sentences, particularly mandatory minimums,” Holden said, adding that such policies were based on fear and emotion.

There has been recent progress in several states, however. Texas has closed four prisons since 2007 and saved more than $4 billion of taxpayers’ money while experiencing the lowest crime rate since the 1960s. Georgia has its lowest crime rate in a decade and has saved more than $420 million in taxpayers’ money with fewer people in prison compared to 2011 projections, Holden said.

“The federal system is still kind of a mess,” Holden said, largely because many of the elected officials who enacted so-called “tough-on-crime” policies are still in office.

Things are changing, Holden explained, touting past work with the Obama administration and ongoing efforts with the Trump administration on prison reform legislation—the FIRST STEP Act. He also pointed to Safe Streets & Second Chances, a recently launched evidence-driven best practices initiative in four states supported by Koch Industries that is developing individualized reentry programs so that people leaving prisons are equipped to reintegrate successfully into our communities.

New research from Safe Streets & Second Chances indicates that incarcerated men and women want to spend twice as much time learning in prison as they currently do. According to the same research, women surveyed would like to work three times as much as they currently do while imprisoned, and men said they would like to work four times as much. Koufos, a former attorney who served time for a hit-and-run, saw similar motivation during his time behind bars.

“When I was in prison, nobody asked me for money, but everybody asked me for a job,” said Koufos, who now serves as the executive director of Safe Streets & Second Chances. “These people wanted the dignity of work, they wanted to be able to take care of their families … but they couldn’t because of a series of entanglements.”

People are largely afraid to address mental health issues surrounding incarceration, Roseberry told Holden. Rehabilitation needs to include a legitimate assessment, she said, as well as a mental-health check prior to prosecution and incarceration.

“If they land in the criminal justice system, we need a robust mental health component of rehabilitation for them while they’re there,” Roseberry said. “We need at least not to return them worse than when they went into prison.”

Once a gang member who racked up 13 arrests, eight months behind bars, and multiple tattoos bullet and stab wounds, Windecher decided at 19 that he wanted to turn around his life and become an attorney. Before passing any legislation, he said, lawmakers should visit a prison and meet those who are incarcerated as well as their families.

“I think it’s the most prudent thing to for us to do, that way everybody’s informed and aware of how difficult” conditions are,” Windechere said. “The meals are terrible. The time is not spent well. No matter what you wear, it’s gonna stink and make you feel uncomfortable. And when you come out, there’s going to be issues that you’re suffering from. So, it’s important.”

Holden urged the live and online audiences to get involved in their communities and engage with public officials, as well as to give second chances to those who have paid their debt to society.

“With one in three people in this country having a criminal record, if you’re not going to take a chance on one-third of the applicant pool, that’s very shortsighted as a business owner. That’s why we at Koch have banned the box for several years,” Holden said. “At the end of the day, it’s really about trying to support each other and help your communities get better.”

Watch the full presentation below.