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President Obama follows the Koch brothers’ lead on criminal justice reform CBS

In liberal circles, the libertarian Koch Brothers are often demonized as capitalist boogeymen out to increase their profit margin at the expense of the poor. Their defenders respond that free markets do more to alleviate aggregate poverty than redistributionary government schemes. This economic disagreement is likely to continue indefinitely, but there’s a strong area of common ground between liberals and libertarians on one key issue: criminal justice reform.

In fact, Charles and David Koch have been major players in promoting reforms to our penal system, not just by pushing for policy changes legislatively, but by living their values through Koch Industries. In April of this year, Koch Industries decided to “ban the box,” which means they got rid of the checkbox on job applications that force prospective employees to disclose their criminal records. This practice has made it extremely difficult for individuals who are no longer incarcerated to find work—particularly if they happen to be a person of color.

Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, explained that, “As a large United States-based manufacturing company that employs 60,000 American workers we shouldn’t be rejecting people at the very start of the hiring process who may otherwise be capable and qualified, and want an opportunity to work hard.” As data from the Department of Criminal Justice shows, up to 75 percent of inmates have difficulty finding work during their first year of reentry into society.

When a company chooses to “ban the box,” as Koch has done, the employer won’t know about a prospective hire’s criminal record by simply looking at their application. If a manager expresses interest in a résumé and interviewing begins, they’ll find out about the felony record as the process goes on. The key difference is that the interviewee has already gotten his foot in the door, and the employer is more likely to give him a chance.

This week, President Obama decided to follow suit, announcing on Monday that he signed an executive order that begins eliminating bias against those with criminal records in the federal hiring process. This comes in the wake of Obama’s recent focus on criminal justice reform, which included a summer visit with inmates at a federal prison, something no other president has done before. As Ari Melber of MSNBC reported of his decision this week:

Obama unveiled the plan on a visit to a treatment center in New Jersey, a state where Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a ban the box bill into law last year. Hillary Clinton endorsed ban the box last week, while Republican Sen. Rand Paul also introduced similar federal legislation, with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, to seal criminal records for non-violent offenders.

This speaks to the increasingly bipartisan nature of criminal justice reform, which is a surprising but good sign in a government divided by a fractious Republican Congress and Democratic executive branch. People from all walks of life are beginning to recognize that preventing individuals from effectively re-entering society after serving time in prison further inflames the cycle of poverty that in many cases drove criminals to use or sell drugs in the first place. And “ban the box” is just one of the many changes on the table. Focusing on treatment rather than incarceration has also gained steam, and reforms to largely arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences have gotten major hearings in Congress.

As President Obama said this week:

A lot of time, that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy.

This echoes what Charles Koch wrote about overcriminalization earlier this year:

After a sentence is served, we should restore all rights to youthful and non-violent offenders, such as those involved in personal drug use violations. If ex-offenders can’t get a job, education or housing, how can we possibly expect them to have a productive life? And why should we be surprised when more than half of the people released from prison are again incarcerated within three years of their release?

With agreement like this between two warring camps, there’s hope for more meaningful and desperately needed criminal justice reforms in the near future.

Corie  Whalen About the author:
Corie Whalen is a political consultant and writer based in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CorieWhalen
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