The Corner

Law & the Courts

Koch Network Making Another Push for Criminal-Justice Reform

Last year, the House, the Senate, and President Obama came extraordinarily close to passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal-justice system, only to see last-minute jitters – fueled in part by the political current of the presidential race – derail the effort.

This year, the Koch network and its congressional allies have high hopes that Congress will enact those changes, which include reducing the mandatory minimum for drug offenses, limiting the use of solitary confinement on juvenile prisoners, and requiring federal prisons to offer programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

“We’re doubling down on that,” said Mark Holden, co-chairman of the Koch Seminar Network. “We’re not optimistic that it will happen before summer, but there still seems to be a lot of support for it. . . . We’re hopeful that in a non-election year, with a president who really wants to be a game-changer, this could be a huge game-changer.”

Republican senator Mike Lee says his support for sentencing reform stems from his days as a federal prosecutor, where he saw a defendant, a young man in his mid 20s and a father of two young children, sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling three “dime bag” quantities of marijuana over a 72-hour period. Federal sentencing laws required the judge to give him 55 years, a stiffer penalty than some violent offenders receive.

“When he was sentenced, the judge disagreed with the sentence he was about to impose. . . . He uttered a few words that have stuck with me ever since: ‘Only Congress can change this problem,’” Lee said.

Holden said that this year’s efforts to persuade doubtful lawmakers will focus on citing successful recidivism-reduction programs that generated results in their own backyards: “People that oppose it, by and large, come from states where this has all worked.”

A major obstacle to last year’s passage was the skeptical view of Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is now President Trump’s nominee to be attorney general.

Lee said he’s talked to the Trump team, pitching the reforms to the president who ran on a traditional law-and-order platform. “We’re working on it, ” Lee said. “I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, other than to say I have reason to be hopeful.”

Some of the other advocates of criminal-justice reform at the Koch network’s winter meeting were blunter about Sessions’s role in the bill’s fate last year. “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, because they got him out of the way,” said Doug Deason, a Texas businessman, political donor, and longtime advocate for prison reform. “You see the ads that they’re running on him, and you would think he was the saint of criminal-justice reform.”

Holden is quick to point out that Sessions was an original co-sponsor of enacted legislation that dramatically reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and he feels that Sessions will see the benefits of broader sentencing reform.

“What happened last time was election-year politics and all of the unusual aspects of the Republican primary,” Holden said.  On Sessions, he predicts, “I think he’ll do the right thing.”

Most Popular


The Inquisitor Has No Clothes

This is a column about impeachment, but first, a confession: I think I might be guilty of insider trading. At this point, I would like to assure my dear friends at the SEC that I do not mean this in any actionable legal sense, but only in principle. Some time ago, I was considering making an investment in a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Shaming Women Who Vote Right

Some progressives have decided that rather than convincing women that their candidates and policy proposals are better than those of conservatives, they will shame women who fail to vote for the Left by defining them all as racist and self-loathing tools of the patriarchy. Think I’m exaggerating? See this ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Way Forward from the Midterms

With the 2018 midterm elections now in the rearview mirror, Republicans have been awakened to a simple fact: The laws of political gravity apply to President Trump. Democrats won sweeping victories in the House, kept their Senate losses to a near-minimum despite a brutal map, and took down-ballot races with ... Read More