A new, bipartisan, Koch Brothers-backed coalition launched today plans to spend more than $5 million on criminal justice reform initiatives, further underscoring prison and sentencing reform's unique position as one of the nation's most widely discussed policy proposals as well as one with some of the most broad political backing.
The new "Coalition for Public Safety," the details of which were first reported by the New York Times, represents an unprecedented bipartisan effort at a federal level to drive criminal justice reform, aiming to forge the same alliances between civil rights-minded organizations on the left with deficit-conscious organizations on the right that have propelled prison and sentencing reform in more than a dozen states.
"There are so many people doing good work in the criminal justice space, but one of the challenges has been that all of the organizations are working on their own agendas," said Christine Leonard, the coalition's executive director and a former White House and congressional staffer, in an interview with The Post on Thursday. "We've really tried to bring more and more folks across the different tables."
Leonard and other leaders of the political organizations that have signed on to the coalition — which span from Tea Party groups such as FreedomWorks to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform to liberal groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress — note that historically low crime rates have opened the door to a more robust political discussion of enacting real criminal justice reform. In addition to the Koch Brothers, the coalition has the financial backing of the Laura and John Arnold, Ford, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations.
"It’s happening in a time when crime is down," Leonard said. "So there is a different opportunity to talk about why, if crime is going down, do we still have these growing costs of our criminal justice system."
For years, political observers have pointed to criminal justice reform as one of the policy areas in which the left and right might find the most natural alliances. Traditionally seen as a liberal cause, criminal justice reform has for more than a decade been a policy tenant for many fiscal conservatives. After years of tough-on-crime policies and political platforms from both parties, many Republican governors took a sharp turn on the issue in the mid-2000s, and began championing a "smart on crime" approach aimed at limiting skyrocketing incarceration costs that weighed heavy on their state budgets.
In fact, of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates, many have been outspoken supporters of some extent of sentencing and criminal justice reform, including Govs. Rick Perry (Tex.), Bobby Jindal (La.), former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.), and Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have both partnered with Democrats on criminal justice reform legislation this year.
"What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense," Cruz said this month, flanked by, among others, liberal Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), as a bipartisan group introduced a drug sentencing reform bill. "We are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system."
And the Koch Brothers, spenders on Republican politics, and their allies have long noted that the amount the U.S. spends on incarceration is a major concern of theirs.
“The Coalition for Public Safety is an opportunity for all of us to set aside ideological and political differences and unite on an issue that matters to so many Americans," Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, said in a statement which echoes similar previous statements from Koch spokespeople on the need for criminal justice reform.
"It's not a left-right issue. It's an issue we can unite around," Holden told NJ.com this month. "There's no greater infringement on liberty than the criminal justice system."
And the new coalition is latest in several public facing steps toward advancing that agenda. Last week, Generation Opportunity, a libertarian-leaning youth-oriented organization that benefits from the Koch funding network, held an event, film screening, and panel discussions at the Newseum that focused on federal mandatory sentencing laws — highlighting the case of Weldon Angelos, who, with no previous criminal record, was sentenced to a 55-year prison sentence for selling roughly $350 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer.
Much like the newly-minted coalition, the Generation Opportunity event was a bipartisan affair that linked strange bedfellows, featuring remarks from Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and one of the panel discussions included participants from the left-leaning ACLU and the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.
“We think 2015 offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to have a substantial dialogue about how to fix this ... momentum is building quickly," said Generation Opportunity Institute President Evan Feinberg in a statement issued after the event. "In the past year, legitimate concerns have been raised about the current state of the relationship between law enforcement and communities – especially communities of color. These raw, pre-existing tensions were not spawned by these recent events, but instead, revealed that our criminal justice system has long been a source of division."