Koch Industries sponsors session on mass incarceration at Baltimore conference

Koch Industries will sponsor a session at the National Urban League's conference on criminal justice reform.

Koch Industries — owned by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch — is sponsoring a plenary session on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration Friday at the National Urban League's Baltimore conference.

Mark Holden, the company's general counsel, said a "moral, fiscal and constitutional" case can be made for changing the country's criminal justice system.

"We're trying to do everything we can do to help people improve their lives and try to make this a more free and open society," said Holden, a former guard in a Massachusetts county jail.

The Koch brothers, known for their libertarian-leaning political activism, push for a host of criminal justice reforms, including ending sentencing disparities, addressing prosecutorial overreach and strengthening the right to competent and fair representation.

Holden said the company says it wants to promote bipartisan reform and is working with groups that may seem like "unlikely allies," such as the ACLU and NAACP.

"We're reaching out to more and more people, to as many groups as possible to build a broad coalition," Holden said. "It's something everyone has a stake in … whatever color, whatever religion, we're all impacted by it."

He is among a group of speakers scheduled for Friday's 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. session, "The Burden of Mass Incarceration: Time for new Solutions." Also set to participate are NAACP President Cornell William Brooks; Baltimore lawyer William H. "Billy" Murphy, who represented Freddie Gray's family; and lawyer Benjamin Crump of Florida, who represented Trayvon Martin's family.

Gray died in April 2015 after sustaining a spinal injury in police custody. Martin was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in 2012.

The session is expected to focus on "What can be done to steer efforts and resources away from retribution to sustainable rehabilitation."

Holden said money saved from a "ratcheted down" criminal justice system could be redirected toward "essential services," including education and mental health. The criminal justice system is a "failed big government program" that picks winners and losers, often based on wealth.

States, including Maryland, have financial incentives to make changes, he said.

"It's happening whether it's a red or blue state," Holden said.

The General Assembly approved a sweeping reform of Maryland's criminal justice system this year, with the intent of reducing the state prison population and plowing savings into crime prevention programs.

He said he wants to spotlight during the session the business community's role in ex-offenders' re-entry into society. At Koch Industries, Holden said, they're in a "global talent hunt" and want to find the best workers, with or without a criminal record.

Koch performs background checks when they extend conditional offers. Past convictions are part of the discussion about whether to hire a job candidate, but don't automatically disqualify applicants, he said.

"We're going to give everyone a fair shake," Holden said.

The conference, scheduled to run through Saturday, is also to feature a career fair, health expo and high-profile speakers, such as White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr.

The Koch brothers have not backed either candidate in this year's presidential race.

On Sunday, Charles Koch announced his network would not support Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. When asked if he would support Democrat Hillary Clinton, he called any such suggestion "a blood libel," the Associated Press reported.

"At this point I can't support either candidate, but I'm certainly not going to support Hillary," Koch said to hundreds of donors Sunday in Colorado, according to the wire service.

No love was lost for Trump, who Tweeted last week: "I turned down a meeting with Charles and David Koch. Much better for them to meet with the puppets of politics, they will do much better!"

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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