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As a Baby Boomer, I’ve been around for a while. I remember in eighth grade how Mr. Futtrell had a paddle, which was inscribed “Board of Education.” I don’t believe that Mr. Futtrell actually used the paddle, but it was in a case in the main hall and we walked past it every day.

Back when I was in junior high, when Richard Nixon was president and Barack Obama was fidgeting in an Indonesian madrassa, we were taught that politics progressed by Democrats and Republicans discussing an issue, seeking to find a middle ground, and realizing that compromises had to be made in order for our country to advance. That isn’t the way politics happens today. Here’s what usually happens:

  1. Leftists scream at the top of their lungs about how outraged they are by something.
  2. Social media amplifies these screams.
  3. A compliant press duly reports on screamers and how loud they are.
  4. After a couple weeks, either the change happens or the left blames the billionaires and finds something else to scream about.
  5. Political change doesn’t happen, but boy, does all that screaming feel good!

Nonetheless, there are a few issues where political change happens the old-fashioned way—by liberals and conservatives getting together in a bipartisan coalition to work for constructive change. This appears to be happening in the area of criminal justice reform, an area where President Obama and Charles and David Koch are on the same side.

Bill Keller, writing in the New Yorker, discusses conservative efforts for criminal justice reform in this piece. Keller directs The Marshall Project, which specializes in reporting on criminal justice in general and the death penalty in particular. (The articles I’ve read from the project seem to me to be well reported and thoughtful.) His emphasis is on the group Right on Crime, a coalition of social conservatives and libertarians devoted to reducing prison sentences for lower-level crimes and reducing the barriers that block prisoners from re-entering the labor force. (The group is an offshoot of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for whom I once worked.)

Right on Crime’s founder is Patrick J. Nolan, who came from Southern California and who began his political career volunteering for Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaigns and working for the Young Americans for Freedom. He was elected to the California Assembly from Burbank, eventually becoming minority leader. Then, in 1988, he had a meeting with people who claimed they were building a shrimp processing plant if they received state loan guarantees but were actually FBI agents seeing if they could bribe legislators. Dolan still has an audio tape of the session, which, according to Keller, ‘plays today like an outtake from American Hustle.”

Nolan pled guilty and served 33 months in two minimum-security prisons. He found that most of the inmates were low-level drug dealers who were constantly told by the guards that they were failures who would end up in jail again.

“The implication is: you’re worthless, you come from nothing, you are nothing, you’ll never amount to anything,” Nolan says. And just as poor people who are told in school that they are failures usually end up fulfilling their teachers’ predictions, so too did these criminals end up in jail again and again.

When he was released in 1996, the Justice Fellowship, an offshoot of the Prison Fellowship devoted to sentencing reform, hired Nolan. He found a large number of people on the right interested in criminal justice reform, including Christians interested in fairer sentences and free-market types such as Grover Norquist who smelled “the odor of wasted tax dollars.” They also agreed early on that issues of drug legalization and any restrictions on gun use would not be considered.

Right on Crime has scored several victories in reducing sentences for minor federal crimes and making it easier for criminals to enter the labor force. Their biggest victory came last year when, thanks to funding from B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., (whose father created a storage-locker fortune), they led the effort to successfully pass Proposition 47 in California, which “downgraded minor drug and property crimes to misdemeanors.”

One of the backers of Right on Crime are the Koch brothers, who also give money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Sari Horwitz, as part of a Washington Post series on the drug war, looks at the Koch brothers’ efforts in criminal justice reform.

She interviewed Charles Koch, who said that their efforts in this area were part of their long-term interest in advancing liberty and helping poor people advance. Koch applauded President Obama’s decision to commute some sentences, but added “clemency for a few—to me, that’s not just. If you have 1,000 people who got unjust sentences, to give clemency to (a few)—but not the others—why should they suffer?”

Now the Koch’s views have been well known ever since David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980. You might think that the Left would accept that the Kochs are acting out of their support for long-held principles. But of course you would be wrong.

Horwitz documents many examples of the Left claiming to unearth the Koch’s hidden motives. One theory is that the Koch brothers are trying to repair the damaged reputation of Koch Industries, who was fined $10 million after a plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, was caught illegally polluting the Gulf of Mexico with benzene.

A website called “Real Koch Facts” promises to reveal “The Kochshank Redemption.” I didn’t look at this site, because I know that any leftist site with “real facts” in its title has as much useful information as there is cheese in Cheez Whiz. Another site, run by something called the Bridge Project, promised that revelations would be revealed. But I gave up reading after they started ranting about Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, whose chief effort in criminal justice reform was closing a Baltimore prison infamous for having been taken over by the notorious Black Guerilla Family gang.

Horwitz interviewed former Obama administration official Van Jones, who now heads a group that wants to reduce the U.S. prison population by 50 percent. He explained that he was opposed to the Kochs on environmental issues but didn’t mind working with them on criminal justice matters.

“In a democracy, when you disagree with somebody, you should work really hard against them,” Jones said. “But when you agree with them, you should work really hard alongside them. On criminal justice reform, we’re very proud to work alongside them.”

Jones added “I never met a single person in prison who said, ‘I sure hope the Republicans and the Koch brothers don’t help me.’”

I realize that Van Jones is a diamond-hard leftist, and he may get an aneurysm if he gets praise from me. But it’s clear that he is an adult in a movement full of whiners and ninnies. He knows what it takes for political change to happen.

The left needs to learn that endless screaming accomplishes little or nothing. Quiet, polite, and productive cooperation—as is happening in criminal justice issues—is what is needed to accomplish constructive change.

1 thought on “More bipartisanship, exemplified by criminal justice reform, badly needed”

  1. Martin Morse Wooster says:

    In May 2019, President Trump pardoned Patrick Nolan, in part because of his work in criminal justice reform.

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