As the conversation on race relations in America continues to evolve, our nation’s thought leaders are beginning to step forward to offer their much-needed input into an age-old discussion. One such leader is Mark Holden, who serves as general counsel for Koch Industries, Inc. The accomplished attorney took some time out of his schedule to sit down with rolling out to discuss race and prison reform in America.
What was the impetus for your company to take a leadership role in the criminal justice reform process in this country?
It’s multilayered. Let me just start with Charles Koch, who is the CEO of our company. His vision for a free society is that you need to remove obstacles to opportunity for all Americans — particularly, the poor and disadvantaged. Charles also has classical liberal ideals and believes in a free and prosperous society that’s defined by expansive civil liberties and individual liberties, as contained in the Bill of Rights. So, if you’re interested in the poor, and you believe in the Bill of Rights and the expansion of civil liberties, you have to be in the criminal justice reform movement.
Why is criminal justice reform important to our economy today?
The criminal justice system as it’s set up today is a major impediment to opportunity for the disadvantaged and the poor. It’s a two-tiered system where if you’re rich and guilty, you get a better sentence than if you’re poor and innocent. There have been studies that said if we had not engaged in over-incarceration, over-criminalization and over-sentencing for the past 20 years, our poverty rate could be 20 percent [much lower].
Why is it important to remove the checkbox on the job application? Don’t employers have the right to know if a person has been to prison?
Absolutely. Employers have the right to know. We banned the box at Koch Industries because we don’t think it’s just to exclude someone from employment at the very outset just because they may have made a mistake in their past. In our process, we want to get to know the whole person. Find out who they are and not necessarily something that they have done long ago. As a global employer in a global economy, if we were to say we are not going to look at or reach out to a whole segment of society because of something that they may have done in their past, that’s not even anything that we would do from a competitive standpoint. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to us. Because of the way our [criminal justice] system is set up now, what is criminal behavior is not always apparent. We’ve seen the types of situations where people are sent to jail for a long time for things that aren’t even criminal or for things they didn’t even do; then they get out of prison and they have all types of collateral consequences on them … the main one is they can’t get a job. So, at Koch we decided to remove that barrier and get to know the whole person, and then as we go down that path to see if we are going to hire them, those issues can be addressed. They’re not at the forefront, because those issues aren’y all that important to us.
How will prison reform change the African American community?
I would say that it would benefit all Americans. In my experience from working in a prison while I was in college in my hometown of Windsor, Massachusetts, it was mostly poor people in that prison. We are talking poor white people and poor people of color who were disproportionately impacted by the way we go about enforcing our criminal justice system. To fix that will be a great relief for everybody at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. It’s also a system right now not worthy of our ideals that are contained in the Bill of Rights. We are not enhancing public safety. We are wasting a lot of time, money, effort and human potential, and we’re not treating people like individuals. So our system as it is constructed today is not worthy of us and what we aspire to, so to fix those inequities and make it justice for all will benefit all Americans.