Koch at Aspen Ideas Festival: Top 5 criminal justice reform lessons

Mark Holden, Koch Senior Vice President and General Counsel, shares the best ideas he took away from the festival

June 29, 2018

Rarely has an issue generated such an overwhelming consensus on all sides, but that is precisely what the dire need for criminal justice reform has spurred in recent years. Whether it’s states taking the lead in implementing sentencing reforms or businesses like Koch banning the box on job applications, individuals and organizations have taken real, positive actions to set more people up to live successful and fulfilling lives.

As a panelist at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival, I had a fascinating discussion with moderator Meryl Chertoff, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program and adjunct law professor at Georgetown University Law Center; and Karol V. Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We covered a ton of ground in our session, from reforms at the state and national levels to the outlook for criminal justice reform beyond 2018.

I took away several significant points from the day, ideas that I hope will guide my work and others in advocating for policies that are smarter on crime, soft on taxpayers, and ultimately safer for everyone. Here’s an inside look at my top 5:

1. The whole system needs to be disrupted

The U.S. criminal justice system reflects our larger two-tiered society in which the privileged benefit at the expense of everyone else. Having money for bail should not be the ultimate arbiter of public safety.  From a reform standpoint, we have seen the most success with programs that treat people as individuals and not as criminals. We can reduce—and have reduced—crime by discouraging people from destructive habits that lead to recidivism.

2. All of us have a role to play in criminal justice reform

Businesses like Koch Industries can take a leading role in providing opportunity for those seeking a second chance at life. One in three people in the U.S. has some kind of criminal record. Hiring them makes sense for any business that wants the best people. It’s also the right thing to do. It’s why we banned the box on job applications and have consistently advocated for policies that are smart on crime and soft on taxpayers.

3. States have led the way

Just look at Texas, where a little more than a decade ago, legislators projected they would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years. Texas chose to reform, expanding its drug courts and mental health programs. Crime levels dropped to 50-year lows, the state has closed four prisons and plans to close four more. Texas saved its taxpayers $3 billion in the process. Other states, like South Carolina and Georgia, have also taken positive steps in recent years.

4. Ongoing research and data will improve lives

Mason noted during our discussion that criminal justice data can drive fairer policies that are based on facts rather than assumptions or past prejudices. Sentencing disparities continue to exist, especially along lines of race and economic opportunity. Shedding light on these disparities is crucial to drive change. With Safe Streets & Second Chances, data is being used to effectively rehabilitate and equip incarcerated individuals with the tools they will need to succeed once they are released. While nearly 700,000 Americans will be released from prison this year, close to 70 percent of them are expected to be arrested within the next five years. This can—and must—change.

5. Any action to reform is a step in the right direction

We don’t need an act of Congress, we need an act of conscience. The moral, constitutional and fiscal cases for criminal justice reform are all strong. The House’s recently passed FIRST STEP Act would improve conditions in our prison system, enabling people to train and develop the skills they will need to succeed upon release. Through a combination of legislative action and community-based efforts, we can sustain true progress.

Mark Holden is the senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries.