The recent death of billionaire David Koch has focused a bright light on the way he and his massively rich brother Charles have used their money and influence, not least in the arena of criminal punishment reform.
I know many of my fellow social justice organizations, such as the Vera Institute, have taken Koch brothers’ money and done some good things with it, like creating a visual data tool to show arrest trends. However, we cannot forget that the Kochs have been particularly egregious because they insert themselves into criminal punishment reform causes while having funded policies and politicians who directly work against it — not just because of a difference in philosophy, but for profit.
They gave millions to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization with a history of drafting repressive immigration legislation and “three-strikes” laws. They have also worked closely with the private prison industry. Additionally, Koch funding to the tune of $254,000 was given to the Republican State Leadership Committee last year, which then funded a successful run by Judge Brian Hagedorn in Wisconsin, who believes in criminalizing sodomy and advocated for sterilizing transgender people. The Kochs threw their full support behind the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and funded former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a well-known “tough on crime” advocate who publicly stated, “The challenges in terms of people being incarcerated for relatively low offenses is not a significant issue in the state of Wisconsin,” despite his state being among the top for incarcerating people of color.
Essentially, all money is dirty, but the Kochs’ has been directly damaging. While they have given money to criminal punishment reform, they have also funded some of the most damaging legislation, politicians and actions that negatively affect the same communities that are historically targeted for incarceration. They have purported to want to help people who are incarcerated return to their communities, and yet they also profit off community-based incarceration — electronic monitors and reentry houses — and private prisons. Prison is prison. No advocate for real systemic change would funnel money toward incarcerating people in their communities.
Of course, we don’t need purity tests for funding and support. What we need is vision, and an understanding of the impact the Kochs’ policies have made. We will make mistakes as we work toward reshaping policy, but let’s not make them because we’re distracted by the offer of huge piles of money, even though we’re all aware of how hard funding is to find.
There’s a difference between securing funding to help you do your work and making systemic change. We have to be able to do both without compromising our larger vision.
“But we need to work across the aisle,” I hear you cry. I agree and have done so myself, but bipartisan work is not solely about intent; it’s about effect. It’s about understanding that short-term surface gain can damage or destroy long-term systemic change.
The argument recently has been that if you have concerns about legislation like the Koch-backed First Step Act, you’re against people being released rather than legitimately concerned about those with the self-interest to make sure their long-term wealth is protected. By insisting on trying to include mens rea reform in the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, for instance, the Kochs were protecting themselves and other millionaires against “white-collar crimes” by a caveat that requires prosecutors to prove that corporate criminals knew their actions were illegal, making it harder to gain convictions against them.
While it would be tough to find funding from corporations that don’t damage the environment in some way, if we were an environmental movement, would we be funded by BP? If we were trying to expose the opioid crisis, would we be funded by Johnson & Johnson? That’s who the Kochs have been historically in this space.
While our movement is currently in danger of slipping toward being co-opted by “influencer” egos and self-aggrandizement, of becoming a competition and forgetting why and for whom we do this work, it is also at a point where those most impacted are finally being centered. There are many great grassroots organizations — some of which are led by people who have been impacted by incarceration themselves — who are doing amazing work in this space, who never forget why and for whom they exist and don’t take Koch dollars. This is a crucial moment where we have to decide which way we want to go and who we want to take the ride with.
For-profit and rehabilitation do not go together. To decarcerate just to recarcerate in the same communities targeted by the prison-industrial complex just moves the goalposts and ensures continued profit for those who are losing it by the demise of private prisons.
The Kochs have a stranglehold on the way politics works in the U.S. Their legacy is that of protecting profit over people and keeping the 1 percent in power. As a movement, we should make a stand, even when it’s hard. Do we want systemic change, or are we content with shifting the problem ever outward and making incremental progress for the few?
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