Eric Frazier

A rich man’s quest for justice

Charles Koch, shown here in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas, wants to reform America’s criminal justice system.
Charles Koch, shown here in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas, wants to reform America’s criminal justice system. AP

What if, in this hyper-polarized era, some of the strongest activists from the left and the right banded together to bring about badly needed social reform?

That would be an unqualified good, right?

Then why was I so skeptical last week upon hearing about the Coalition for Public Safety, a $5 million campaign to bring our out-of-control criminal justice spending and incarceration rates under control?

Its backers include the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and conservative mega-donor Charles Koch on the right. Others include the Tea Party-oriented FreedomWorks and a coalition of civil rights organizations.

Koch’s chief lawyer, Mark Holden, has co-signed one of the articles of faith among the Al Sharpton activist set – that misguided “tough on crime” policies of the past few decades have disproportionately hurt minorities.

“It definitely appears to have a racial angle, intended or not,” the Wichita Eagle newspaper quoted him as saying.

We have over the past 40 years locked up more of our citizens, and for a longer period, than any other democracy. We are spending about as much on prisons and jails – $80 billion annually – as we do on the federal Department of Education.

All this at a time when the crime rate has dropped to about half of what it was when it crested in 1991. (And in case you’re wondering about cause and effect, researchers from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice recently released a study showing the tougher laws had little to do with the drop in crime).

Common sense tells you we’re at a moment ripe for rethinking our sentencing policies. But since when has common sense driven policy-making in Washington, D.C.?

And that’s why I was skeptical. Until, that is, I read a little more closely and learned that Charles Koch has a little first-hand experience with how harsh the glare of the federal prosecutorial spotlight can feel.

About a decade ago, a federal grand jury indicted his company on 97 felonies tied to alleged environmental crimes at an oil refinery.

The company eventually reached a $10 million settlement with prosecutors. But not before Koch learned a key lesson: it stinks to be the little guy.

I know powerful voices in Congress will rise against the coalition.

But now I see good reason to be optimistic. Correction: Looking at the Koch political network’s projected 2016 campaign spending, I see 889 million reasons.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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