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The Unlikely Alliance for Prison Reform

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The most interesting political meeting this week may be the one between Valerie Jarrett, the closest confidante of President Barack Obama, and Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the anti-Obama Koch brothers.

This will be their fourth meeting. They correspond regularly  and have developed a mutual respect while working on the most sweeping reform of the U.S. criminal justice system in decades.

QuickTake Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Addressing the economic and social cost of the huge prison problem -- more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, a higher share of the population than almost anywhere else -- is a priority for both the White House and the Kochs.

The effort is advancing in both houses of Congress; House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell are committed to bringing legislation to the floor.

The measures are the product of alliances rarely seen in today's polarized politics: Republican Senator Charles Grassley and Democrat Patrick Leahy; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, and Representative John Conyers, a liberal Democrat. And Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a progressive Democrat from Rhode Island, and the Republican whip, John Cornyn of Texas.

The effort is spearheaded by the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of leading groups that contains on the left, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, and on the right, the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Grover Norquists's Americans for Tax Reform. 

The broad measures would overhaul some of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1970s that are partly responsible for the 400 percent explosion of the prison population. The changes would give judges more leeway in sentencing and make it easier for inmates who aren't convicted of violent crimes or repeat offenders to get out. And in an effort to address the exceedingly high recidivism rate, there likely will be a re-entry provision offering more assistance and incentives for employers to hire ex-convicts. 

"This is a once in a generation chance to bring together this coalition," says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The Jarrett-Holden relationship got off to a good start in their first meeting last spring, when the Koch counsel told the top White House aide that he was with her on "Ban the Box," a campaign to persuade employers not to require applicants to check a box if they have a criminal record.

Still this isn't a done deal. All sides agree action is essential by early next year or the push will get ensnared in presidential politics. The Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Donald Trump already inveigh against putting criminals back on the street.

And there is a split over toughening the so-called mens rea, or criminal intent, requirement in criminal law. Some conservatives and business groups want to insert a provision that critics, including the Obama administration, say would make it much harder to go after corporate polluters, by forcing prosecutors to prove intent.

The change isn't in the bill the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared with a big bipartisan vote in October. But the House committee is moving several separate bills -- which might be combined on the floor -- including the mens rea legislation.

Liberals such as Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, says this would be a poison pill dooming the overall measure. Others suspect this is the real motive for the Kochs; their company has faced a number of charges and pleaded guilty to a major environmental offense, paying a stiff fine. 

But, in an interview, Holden said that while the intent reform would be good policy, "it's not do or die" for the Kochs, who still would enthusiastically support legislation that doesn't include it. "Our primary focus is to change an indefensible two-tier system where the wealthy and connected get much better treatment than the poor," he said. "And the result is a cycle of incarceration and poverty."

Most of those on both sides, from Jarrett to lawmakers, say Holden's commitment is authentic. "No single person has pushed conservatives more on this issue than Mark Holden," says Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. "There is no more influential voice for prison reform."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net