Key Conservative Tells Congress: Pass Sentencing Reform

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US Congress

Photo by Jacob Resor via Flickr

One of the nation’s leading conservatives called on federal lawmakers Thursday to pass the newest version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and he urged President Donald Trump to sign it.

Mark Holden

Mark Holden. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Mark Holden, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Koch Industries, said the proposed measure, which would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for some nonviolent federal drug offenders and support incentives for prisoners to earn early release, was a “good bill.”

“Congress needs to do its job in changing (the Act) and get the president to sign it,” he told journalists and criminal justice professionals at John Jay College in New York.

The new version of the Act, whose most prominent opponent in Congress was Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he was an Alabama Senator, was passed 16-5 by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.

Holden conceded that the bill probably “wasn’t going anywhere” because of the administration’s opposition, but at the same time he said the White House was “fully on board” with efforts to improve the chances of individuals leaving prison to reintegrate with the community and become responsible citizens.

Holden, who met with Sessions and President Donald Trump, along with representatives of conservative-leaning groups last month, said he was confident that White House support would lead to backing for innovative and bipartisan approaches to justice reform even if legislative attempts continued to be stalled.

He argued that prison reform remained an important political prerogative for the White House—and for President Trump personally.

“Keep in mind that this is a president who ran on the notion that he would provide a voice for the voiceless and the forgotten men and women in our society,” Holden said.  “If that’s the case, this is the place to be, because that’s who’s in our prisons these days—the voiceless, the forgotten people.”

Holden provided no further details about White House plans, but he said the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was a strong supporter of reforms, noting among other reasons his own family’s involvement with the justice system. Kushner’s father Charles, a real-estate developer, was convicted in 2005 of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering, and served time in federal prison.

Few people truly understood prison’s impact on individuals unless they had “proximity” with someone who had been behind bars, and Jared Kushner “had proximity,” Holden said.

Holden, who also serves as chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, is one of the leading conservative voices pushing for an overhaul of the justice system. Although Koch Industries, headed by multi-billionaire Charles Koch, has been a bitter target of liberals and reformers for its financing of libertarian causes, it has also been a major backer of the bipartisan “smart on crime” movement.

He noted that his group had been “very open and honest” in its disagreements with some of the new administration’s justice policies, such as Sessions’ reversal of his predecessor’s softening of some drug sentencing laws, the failure to move ahead on the federal sentencing overhaul bill, and its opposition to marijuana legalization.

“We disagree that they should be doing what they’re doing with marijuana,” he said. “But in Sessions’ defense, it is on the books, it’s a felony to smoke marijuana. So we need to change that law and Congress needs to get off their butts and do something, and the President needs to sign that.”

Holden used his remarks to promote the Safe Streets and Second Chances program,  a Koch-backed initiative aimed at eventually ensuring that all individuals entering prison in the U.S. immediately receive a program of  counseling, education and rehabilitative care geared towards preparing them for productive lives after release.

He said it was a moral, constitutional and fiscal imperative for all Americans, regardless of their ideological affiliations, to end the “two-tiered system (where) the rich and guilty are treated better than the poor and innocent, and people plead guilty to things they didn’t do because of the power of prosecutors and a lack of full time lawyers to defend them.”

“We don’t let anyone get back on their feet in a real way,” Holden added. “People with criminal records continue to pay the debt for the rest of their lives due the pernicious collateral consequences of a criminal record that exist in this country.”

The Safe Streets, Second Chances initiative, in collaboration with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Florida State University, and others, is already operating pilot projects in prisons in several states and hoped to develop data that would persuade more states to buy into the program, Holden said.

TCR News Intern John Ramsey contributed to this report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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