Politics & Government

Koch Network, Texas think tank team up on criminal justice reform

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Criminal Justice Reform

Follow all of our coverage of Washington’s plan to overhaul the federal criminal justice system, based on reforms Texas, Kentucky and Georgia implemented at the state level.

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The Koch Network is pouring $4 million into a partnership with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and others aimed at reducing criminal recidivism rates in four states.

The Safe Streets and Second Chances project will study criminal rehabilitation programs in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania with a goal of helping prisoners prepare for employment and lead healthy lives after they’re released.

Roughly $1 million will go toward partnerships such as the one with TPPF in each state, to be used on research and business partnerships.

TPPF's criminal justice reform arm will lead that effort in Texas. TPPF President and Fort Worth resident Brooke Rollins will serve on the program’s leadership team, along with Koch Industries’ Senior Vice President and General Counsel Mark Holden and Doug Deason, a Dallas businessman and major Koch Network donor.

“States like Texas have shown what’s possible when policymakers get smart on crime,” said Rollins. “Helping individuals transition back to society after their prison sentences have been completed is the best way to reduce crime, protect communities, and save taxpayers money.”

Labor rights groups in Texas have long criticized TPPF as a lobbying powerhouse for the interests of power corporate donors. Though TPPF doesn’t disclose its donor list, it shares a large number of contributors with the Koch Network.

On Wednesday TPPF announced Deason would join its board of directors, along with Fort Worth businessman Ryan Haggerty.

“They have been about as right-wing an organization you can have,” said Glenn Smith, a senior strategist at the liberal group Progress Texas, of TPPF.

But Smith, who has worked on criminal justice issues for decades in Texas, said it’s one policy issue where collaboration between conservatives and liberals makes sense.

“The fiscal conservatives should be with us on that,” said Smith. “Let’s find a way of spending less than we have to spend on this prison explosion, because that’s the most expensive possible way to address crime.”

Rollins is a member of President Donald Trump’s economic advisory committee, and has run TPPF, one of the country’s largest state-based conservative think tanks, for the last 13 years.

She says criminal justice is one place conservatives have “had it all wrong.”

Rollins said the United States’s comparatively high level of incarceration is “because of us, because of get-tough-on-crime Republicans.”

Trump ran on a tough-on-crime platform, and his selection of a law-and-order attorney general, Jeff Sessions, disappointed criminal justice reform advocates, including members of the Koch Network.

While in the Senate, Sessions, along with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., helped sink sentencing reform legislation that had the support of senators from both parties.

But Rollins, who serves on Trump’s economic advisory committee, said in a recent interview on Capitol Hill that the White House Office of American Innovation has been receptive to some of TPPF’s ideas on the issue.

That office, run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, says its mission is to take ideas from the business community to solve the nation’s problems.

TPPF’s Right on Crime initiative has spent more than a decade pushing for changes to the law in Texas to reduce the number of people in prison. Those efforts include drug courts to keep non-violent offenders from behind bars and changing occupational licensing to allow people coming out of prison to find jobs more easily.

Rollins said in the past 12 years, Texas has closed eight prisons and reduced it’s incarceration rate by 20 percent.

“If Texas can do it anyone can do it, because we’re so conservative,” said Rollins.

TPPF opened a new office in Washington this month, and has three full-time staff members working on criminal justice reform.

The powerful Austin-based think tank lobbies on host of conservative causes in Texas, including energy deregulation, school choice, states’ rights and health care.

Rollins added criminal justice reform, a cause also championed by the Koch Network, to TPPF’s policy docket more than a decade ago.

The Koch Network plans to spend at least $400 million on 2018 elections across its affiliated groups. Its donors are gathering in Palm Springs this weekend for a twice-yearly summit, where criminal justice reform will be at the top of the agenda.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch