David and wife June Trone of Potomac, Maryland. (Trone family photo)

A Maryland couple is donating $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to expand a campaign to cut prison populations and promote private initiatives to rehabilitate and employ ex-convicts, the ACLU announced.

The grant from David Trone, co-founder of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, and his wife, June, is among the largest in the ACLU’s history.

The Trones, both 60, join a growing cadre of wealthy business­people funding a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian groups pushing the Obama administration and Congress to unwind sentencing laws from the era of the drug war. Those advocates argue that draconian punishments have gone too far and cost too much, incarcerating 2.2 million Americans, pouring $80 billion a year into prisons and jails and hollowing out families — particularly in low-income and minority communities.

David Trone, of Potomac, cited Total Wine’s support of the “ban the box” movement — which seeks removal of the criminal-record check box from job applications — as a factor in his gift and an example of what private-sector partners can accomplish.

“Yes, people make mistakes,” he said. “But if they paid the price and now want to build a better life, why should that mistake have to carry with them the rest of their lives?”

The Trones’ grant comes one year after George Soros’s Open Society Foundations pledged $50 million over eight years to the ACLU’s political arm to push for sentencing and other criminal-justice policy changes in local, state and national elections.

Unlike Soros’s grant, the Trones’ gift will pay for traditional ACLU litigation and educational activities and is tax-deductible.

The six-year bequest will establish the Trone Center for Criminal Justice and boost state-level projects — including ones in the District, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana — where incarceration rates and the prospect of bipartisan cooperation are greatest, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

Romero said that while attention is focused on a gridlocked Congress, momentum for change is growing among state and local governments, which house more than 90 percent of the nation’s prisoners and spend more than 90 percent of incarceration-related tax dollars.

He likened the momentum to the push for same-sex marriage, where business leaders who threatened to leave hostile states added an economic argument to the moral and legal case for anti-discrimination laws.

“If business leaders take a big stake in pushing these reforms, it ensures the sustainability of long-lasting reform,” Romero said. “If you can tie the power of the private sector to this sled, then Congress and the president will be dragged into taking real action.”

Major sentencing legislation is tied up in the House and Senate, but advocates are pressing efforts in cities and in state capitals to, among other things, reduce repeat imprisonments.

The campaign is opposed by law enforcement and prosecutors groups that say tough-on-crime policies helped drive crime rates to historic lows. Others say that business magnates bankrolling the push also seek to weaken white-collar criminal laws, potentially helping corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and manipulators of financial markets.

The ACLU said David Trone will chair a new private-sector advisory council that will include business and university leaders. The council will promote efforts to return former prisoners to the workforce and reduce the stigma of employing past offenders, Romero said. It also may consider the value of education and economic incentives such as tax credits for workers and companies.

Council members include Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, and Paul Lewis Sagan, former chief executive of Akamai Technologies, the Web- content delivery company.

Ex-prisoners face a variety of federal and state rules that restrict their ability to get jobs, housing, student and business loans, occupational licenses and public assistance, said another member, Mark V. Holden. Holden is general counsel at Koch Industries, whose billionaire founders, Charles and David Koch, are key sentencing reform backers.

Like Total Wine, Koch Industries, major retailers Walmart, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, and seven states and the District have joined the ban-the-box movement or have expanded “fair chance” hiring practices by private employers. Maryland and Virginia have done so for state agencies.

“The point is, you don’t have to wait; you don’t need anyone to pass a law” to hire someone with a criminal record, Holden said. “We need the best people we can find, not ‘the best people without a criminal record’ or ‘the best people with a criminal record.’ ”

Lomax said historically black colleges and universities can teach ex-offenders job skills as well as strengthen the training of criminal justice students to handle changes.

He cited the Exodus Project, a program at Arkansas Baptist College intended to re-integrate Arkansas Community Correction inmates into society with 240 hours of classes on Christian ethics, career development, personal recovery and money and time management.

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, said the ACLU initiative underscores how far the criminal justice debate has shifted as policymakers research ways “to stop the revolving door of prisons.”

He said 31 states have launched research-based corrections reforms since 2007. But a neglected piece is post-prison supervision, he said, which accounts for pennies on every tax dollar spent for public safety, even though far more offenders have left prison than remain behind bars.

“Offender reentry and supervision has long been the stepchild of the criminal justice system in attention and resources, so every bit of focus like this can make a real difference,” Gelb said.

David and June Trone, who are graduates of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have been longtime ACLU supporters, giving more than $1 million since 1994.

David Trone said the new gift was timed as he and his brother, Robert, co-founders of the Total Wine chain, are bringing on a new chief executive so they can step back from daily operations. Total Wine has stores in 18 states, with 4,000 workers and $2.1 billion in annual sales.

Romero said Trone’s success and status outside the “usual suspects” of supporters gives him added credibility with businesspeople.

The Trones were disrupters of the liquor industry. Their “big box” model of beer and wine stores triggered bitter battles with competitors and drew scrutiny from regulators and criminal charges related to volume discounts.

Cases against the family were dismissed. One of David Trone’s attorneys, Roslyn M. Litman, is an ACLU board member.

“I was lucky. I had the resources and the representation to fight an injustice and win . . . [but] there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t,” David Trone said. With the gift, he said, he hoped the ACLU “can stand up for those who are silenced . . . and figure out how folks who have made mistakes can become great workers with great jobs and drop recidivism.”