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Koch-Backed Criminal Justice Reform Bill To Reach Senate


There's another bit of business the Senate may deal with in this lame-duck session - changes to the federal criminal justice system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed last week to bring the FIRST STEP Act to the floor. A version has already passed the House. The Senate bill calls for easing mandatory minimum sentences and other steps to lessen prison time for inmates in federal prisons and to improve inmates' chances for success after prison. If approved - and it's believed the bill does have enough support to pass - it would represent a rare moment of bipartisan agreement that the country incarcerates too many people for too long.

The bill is also backed by a well-known funder of conservative causes, the Koch brothers' Freedom Partners. The chairman of Freedom Partners, Mark Holden, is with us now on the line. And we should note here that Koch Industries has in the past been among NPR's financial supporters.

Mr. Holden, welcome to the program.

MARK HOLDEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, this bill has been a long time coming, but I'm going to posit the idea that a lot of people, particularly Democrats and progressives, have been arguing for some time that this country locks up too many people for too little reason for too long. And I think it's fair to argue that Republicans have touted their views as being more on the law and order tough on crime side. So what in your view, as a conservative, has persuaded conservatives to take a new look at this issue?

HOLDEN: Well, I'd quibble a little bit. I think both parties, Democrats and Republicans, have demagogued on this issue and politicized it. So, you know, we could go back to the Bush administration, then all the way to the Clinton administration. Both were doing the tough on crime act. And I think that was not a productive way to go about dealing with these issues. I think what's changed is, in the past 10 to 15 years, it's actually been the state.

So it started, actually, in a conservative state, Texas. Back in 2007, they decided instead of building a new prison, they would try some diversionary practices that would keep people who aren't a threat to public safety. So based on a risk assessment, based on evidence-based practices, keeping some people out of the system altogether, giving them something different than prison, whether it's drug treatment, whether it's some mental health treatment, whether it was just another chance to get a job or an opportunity so they didn't end up in prison. And then those who were in prison - they decided to rehabilitate them.

MARTIN: So there's also a - there's a moral issue here that African-Americans and - to a lesser extent, but Hispanics tend to be disproportionately sentenced and given longer sentences. And I wonder if that factors into your thinking.

HOLDEN: Yeah. No, we think the whole criminal justice system needs to be revamped from beginning to end, quite frankly. And, you know, in a lot of ways, it's really a poverty trap, and it disproportionately impacts people of color. There's no doubt about it. And that is - some of the reforms that hopefully will be passed into law this coming week will address that.

So it would be more proportional sentencing because we've seen, particularly with some of the reforms that came in through the Clinton crime bill in the 1990s - it really disproportionately impacted communities of color with crack cocaine and that type of thing. So we're going to reform four different federal criminal laws to make them more proportional. And it's also going to have most importantly, or as importantly, rehabilitation programs.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, there's now strong Republican support for the bill. I'm thinking in particular of Utah Senator Mike Lee. He's been a vocal supporter. But there's still some Republican senators and a couple of law enforcement groups that are opposed. Now, Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas has been arguing that the bill would allow the early release of violent criminals. How do you address that point of view?

MARTIN: I disagree with Senator Cotton, and that's not anything that is in the bill. The reality is that this bill has a lot of support. You mentioned law enforcement. There's vast law enforcement support for this bill with the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police. We've got the Association of State Correctional Authorities (ph). So all the state wardens and leaders and their correctional facilities all think this is the right thing to do because it's worked in their states.

I mean, really, what Senator Cotton is talking about - I think this is just a scare tactic. No one - repeat, nobody - who is a violent felon, sex offender is going to be able to get early release. In fact, nobody gets early release. Everybody is going to be serving their sentences.

MARTIN: Would you agree, at least, though, that there is a level of emotion involved here? And what is it that you think has been the impediment here? Is it just because it's kind of a reflexive - I don't know, an instinct, particularly when there's, like, some horrendous incident or - what do you think has been the impediment to getting this?

HOLDEN: I think the federal level moves more slowly than the states' system. I mean, the states - if you look at what happened in the state starting, like I said, earlier with Texas, state governors and legislatures are required to meet their budgets. And so that leads governors to look at what they're spending their money on. And that's what's led to the criminal justice reform movement across the country.

It starts, as I like to say, the governors and others - they come in for the savings, but they stay for the salvation. Because what they learn is that they've got a lot of people in prison who aren't a threat to public safety, and it costs a lot of money. And they don't want to, you know, have their budget drained on that.

And the reality is, people like Tom Cotton and others who are opposing this - they're basically saying they don't want to do anything, and they are comfortable with a system we know is failing. The federal government system is failing. It fails to equip people to be successful in society. It is a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy, and it needs to change.

MARTIN: That's Mark Holden. He is senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. He's also the chair of Freedom Partners. That's a nonprofit that backs conservative causes. We caught up with him in Arizona, where he's traveling.

Mark Holden, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

HOLDEN: Thank you very much. Have a great day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "MYSTERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.