Amid the gridlock and partisanship in Washington, D.C., and beyond, at least one issue broke through the noise and gained momentum over the last year: criminal justice reform.
At Milken Institute’s 22nd annual Global Conference, 5,000 world leaders recently gathered in California to address a wide range of issues affecting humanity, from finance to health care to equality. Koch Industries senior vice president Mark Holden participated in a discussion on the future of bipartisan and cross-industry leadership to advance criminal justice reform beyond last year’s landmark federal legislation.
Others joining the discussion, moderated by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, included: Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant; Susan Burton, founder, A New Way of Life Reentry Project; Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser, Obama Foundation; Nicholas Turner, president and director, Vera Institute for Justice; and Clara Wu Tsai, social entrepreneur and founder of Clara and Joe Tsai Foundation, in addition to being a co-founder of the new REFORM Alliance.
Holden suggested a shift in the country’s priorities, noting that the U.S. spends three to four times more per capita on incarceration than it does on K-12 education.
“If you are what you eat, then you definitely are what you spend," he said.
Panelists acknowledged the importance of federal legislation dealing with prison reform and reentry, and they also recognized the need for local legislation and businesses to do more for those rejoining communities across the United States. In 2018 alone, more than 700,000 people completed their sentences and began the reentry process. While the U.S. has 5% of the world’s overall population, it is also home to almost 25% of the global prison population, even as the number of prisoners has declined in recent years, according to the most recent government data.
That presents an opportunity for communities and businesses to give second chances to those who have sought to turn around their lives and make positive contributions. This is especially the case now that there are an estimated 7 million jobs that aren’t filled every year. Koch Industries has joined with the Society for Human Resource Management in its Getting Talent Back to Work pledge, developing a toolkit for employers to consider and hire those with criminal records.
What hasn't worked? "For one," Holden told attendees, the so-called “war on drugs.”
“The war on drugs is a waste of time, money, resources, but especially human potential. There’s a better way to do criminal justice so people can improve their lives and not be held back. Right now, it’s a poverty trap,” he said.
Jarrett, who regularly collaborated with Holden on criminal justice reform efforts in the Obama White House, emphasized proactive measures to help communities.
“We need to help people on the front end instead of just focusing on the back end. Constituents are better served by a smart-on-crime approach as opposed to a tough-on-crime approach,” she said.
Holden's White House outreach has continued to the Trump administration, where he has discussed the issue with Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. Holden witnessed the signing of the First Step Act into law at the White House last December, the culmination of months of discussions and advocacy on behalf of the 2.3 million currently incarcerated across the United States.
Burton, who struggled to find stability during nearly two decades in and out of prison, decried the “caging and punishing” of prisoners instead of rehabilitating them for success on the outside.
“When they walk out of the door, there’s no safety net for them. We need to get this fixed now," she said.
Some states have made greater progress, including Mississippi, whose Gov. Bryant noted that his state abolished mandatory minimums as part of criminal justice reform in 2014, saving taxpayers $46 million and dropping the incarceration rate by 11%.
[Read more about criminal justice reform: 7 things to know about the latest re-entry research]
In addition, Koch Industries has partnered with the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) on the Getting Talent Back to Work pledge, establishing a toolkit for other employers to use as they consider best practices for screening and hiring applicants with criminal records. Koch has banned the criminal history box on its job applications since 2015 and, Holden added, has hired people with records for decades.
Holden also discussed criminal justice reform efforts in a series of videos for WorkingNation.