Koch Industries exec calls for criminal justice reform in Louisiana

    A top executive with Koch Industries laid out the conservative case for criminal justice reform in Louisiana to a group of state lawmakers and business leaders at a breakfast meeting this morning.

    Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, was effectively preaching to the choir. Many in attendance at the forum have been involved in the years-long effort to address problems within the state’s criminal justice system and are supportive of bills before the Legislature this session that seek to reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate and reinvest savings in rehabilitation programs.

    “If Louisiana locks more people up and for longer than other states, and spends more money than other states but its crime rate remains higher than other states, why wouldn’t you fix the system?” Holden asked his audience. “It’s clearly not working.”

    Louisiana leads the nation in imprisonment, with a rate nearly double the national average, and spends nearly $700 million annually on corrections. Yet one in three inmates released from prison returns to jail within three years.

    A comprehensive series of bills reflecting the recommendations of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which spent much of the past year studying the issue, will come before lawmakers during the session that began last week. A broad coalition of many Republicans and Democrats is supporting the effort, though the state’s district attorneys oppose many of the measures.

    Holden explained why Koch Industries—whose founders, the Koch brothers, are a powerful force in conservative politics—advocates so strongly for criminal justice reform around the country.

    “We’re no bleeding hearts. In fact, we’re pretty hard core if you believe the media,” he said. “But what we see in a lot of ways is the criminal justice system is just another failed big government program. It picks winners and losers, and wastes a lot of money.”

    The Justice Reinvestment Task Force’s recommendations would reduce the state’s prison population by an estimated 13% over the next decade, saving some $305 million. Holden pointed out that other states that have adopted similar reforms have seen their crime rates decrease, despite concerns that changing sentencing guidelines and parole laws will make the streets more dangerous.

    But following Holden’s address, Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Slidell, articulated the political reality that lawmakers will face when the bills come for a vote. The state’s DAs have come out against some of the key reform measures, namely those that would implement a standardized felony class system and ultimately change sentencing laws.

    “I think the legislators understand the issues and the evidence,” Donahue said. “But voting against your DA and your sheriff in your home parish is a pretty difficult thing to do.”

    Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who chairs the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, said his group has been trying to educate the DAs and sheriffs about the benefits of reform, but he acknowledged it is a challenge.

    “That’s the key,” he said. “It’s something we continue to work on.”

    The forum was sponsored by Smart on Crime Louisiana and Right on Crime.

    —Stephanie Riegel

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