Your Next Best Hire May Have Spent Time in Prison

Mark Holden of Koch Industries shares why criminal justice reform makes for good business

black man in prison
(Image: Thinkstock)

As momentum builds, diverse groups of supporters have demonstrated greater urgency in making the case for criminal justice reform – from changing sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders to reducing barriers to employment for parolees.

In the past few weeks alone, this movement has gained increased bipartisan support as well as a prominent position among Oval Office priorities. President Obama recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, meeting with inmates at El Reno Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. He also commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners and called for legislation to modify sentencing rules by the year’s end during a speech at the NAACP convention. In fact, the president may gain significant backing for his proposal from one of his toughest opponents, Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

[Related: Virginia Bans Criminal History Question on Employment Applications]

Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) – the self-described political “odd couple” – introduced in June the comprehensive Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act to curtail over-criminalization and reduce recidivism. Last week, progressive and conservative business and political leaders, a group that included Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, gathered at the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice. Held in Washington, D.C., the session was hosted by the Coalition for Public Safety, a group committed to creating a smarter, cost-effective legal system, and #cut50, a national initiative co-founded by former Obama White House adviser and activist Van Jones to decrease the prison population by 50% over the next decade.

So why should you care? Check the stats revealed at the Summit: although the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, it houses roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. With 2.3 million American adults incarcerated in prisons and jails nationwide, taxpayers foot a staggering $80 billion annual bill. Moreover, African Americans are impacted disproportionately since 60% of prisoners are people of color and black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

Against this backdrop, Mark Holden has been traveling across the nation to educate people on why criminal justice reform is good for business and the economy. He serves as general counsel for Koch Industries, one of the nation’s largest private companies and a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. At the top of its agenda is the Ban the Box campaign to remove questions related to prior criminal history from job applications – a policy also adopted by companies such as Walmart, Target, and Starbucks. In fact, he makes the argument that eliminating such practices will enable companies, large and small, to find top talent among this pool of nonviolent ex-offenders.

Given the public perception of owners Charles and David Koch, Holden readily admits he’s often asked, “What’s your dog in this fight?” His response: “Charles Koch believes in individual liberties like the Bill of Rights. We want to remove obstacles to opportunity for everybody.”

Engaged in criminal justice reform for more than 12 years, Koch’s alliances range from groups with different political persuasions, including the ACLU; Heritage Foundation; Center for American Progress; and CPS, for which they serve as a core supporter. In fact, Holden met Jones at an event in which the activist partnered with conservative former Speaker of the House and past presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. As such, Holden has been seen on television interviews and conference stages with such progressives as Jones and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, discussing how the expansion of federal criminal laws related to the war on drugs over the past 30 years has created mass incarceration – “a poverty trap” that has snuffed out opportunities for nonviolent, first-time offenders.

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