TIME justice

Koch Brother Teams Up With Liberals on Criminal Justice Reform

Charles Koch
Bo Rader—Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, on Feb 27, 2007.

The push for prison reform gets momentum from a conservative power player

Just days after word emerged that the billionaire Koch brothers will spend nearly a billion dollars to elect conservatives in the 2016 elections, Charles Koch sent a top adviser to Washington to urge Republicans to work with Democrats on a key issue: criminal-justice reform.

Justice reform is not a cause for which the Kochs are normally in the news. The billionaire brothers are known for their lavish giving to conservative candidates and causes, for which they are celebrated on the right and reviled by the left. But for more than a decade, the Kochs have quietly pumped several million dollars into efforts to fix a criminal-justice system that many on both sides of the aisle believe is broken.

Last month, Charles Koch co-authored an op-ed for Politico decrying the “overcriminalization of America.” Now the Kochs are teaming up with some unlikely allies on the left in hopes of rectifying the problem. And their presence in the emerging bipartisan coalition for justice reform underscores the issue’s rare—perhaps unique—status as a cause that has united liberals and conservatives in an era of bitter partisanship.

“There’s just so much movement here,” Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, tells TIME. “It’s sweeping in a lot of unusual, non-traditional allies, and I think it’s a good thing.”

Holden was standing on Wednesday under the glittering chandeliers and Corinthian columns of a caucus room in the Russell Senate building, where he had just wrapped up a prison-reform discussion organized by The Constitution Project. The event offered the rare tableau where a bipartisan group of activists gathered in Washington to agree on policy, rather than fling accusations.

The motley panel included liberal and conservative senators and congressmen, activists and commentators, who warmly complimented one another’s leadership. Holden was seated next to Van Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser who once accused the Kochs of running a “plantation.” The oddball pair seemed bemused at the strange alliance. “Dogs and cats sleeping together,” Holden joked.

It’s easy to see why the issue attracts both sides. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized country in the world (second overall, behind the tiny Seychelles). It has 2.2 million total inmates—more than any other nation, and an increase of 500% over the past three decades. There are some 4,500 federal criminal laws on the books. More than half of the federal prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders.

“Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans alike, have come to the conclusion that the system that has developed over the course of the last few decades in this country isn’t working,” said David Keene, a longtime conservative activist. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we have to work together.”

Activists on the left have long been vocal opponents of the justice system’s failings, which disproportionately affect minority groups and the poor. But their right-leaning counterparts have also fought hard to combat the pipeline to prison, for reasons ranging from the big-government bloat to the waste of taxpayer dollars to the dehumanizing conditions that strip individual liberties.

“Most people assume that conservatives are motivated to reform by economics,” says Pat Nolan, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservation Union Foundation. “My experience is not that. It’s the moral issues…There’s no form of government domination greater than imprisonment.”

Holden has been interested in criminal justice since his days working as a jail guard in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. He was in high school and college at the time, and some of the inmates were former classmates. He witnessed the ways the system can suck people in. “These were the kids who were always in trouble,” Holden recalls. “I’ve always kind of been around these issues.”

The Kochs’ commitment in criminal-justice reform dates to the mid-1990s, when the company became embroiled in a court case related to alleged environmental crimes at a a refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex. In 2001, a subsidiary of the company pleaded guilty to concealing environmental violations at the refinery; a multitude of other charges were dropped, but the company paid a $20 million fine to settle the matter. The owners believed they had been victimized by overzealous prosecutors and unclear statutes. “Our view was if we, a large company with many resources, were treated this way, what’s happening to the average American?” Holden says.

The Kochs began donating money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to combat prosecutorial abuses. “Once we got involved,” says Holden, “we couldn’t stop.” Since 2004, the Kochs have made annual donations (in the “significant six figures,” according to Holden) to the NACDL. The money is designed to address a broad range of justice issues, from mandatory minimums for drug crimes to the right to competent representation and sentencing disparities for the disadvantaged.

Last month, Holden and Koch laid out a five-point reform plan to change the criminal justice system. It includes ensuring that indigent defendants receive adequate legal counsel, reducing criminal liabilities for inadvertent violations, and restoring rights to youthful and non-violent offenders to help them re-enter the job market after their release. Such beliefs have led the Kochs to team up with liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to combat issues like harsh sentencing and Sixth Amendment rights. “It’s very, very rare where we have a moment that the stars have aligned in this way,” said Jones.

Progress looks possible at the federal level. Several justice-reform bills have been introduced in Congress. They’re often the product of strange partnerships: one Senate effort, which would adjust mandatory sentencing guidelines, was sponsored by Dick Durbin of Illinois, a leading liberal, and Utah Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party darling. Another sweeping Senate bill, introduced by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, would seal and expunge juvenile records for nonviolent offenders and restrict the use of solitary confinement. But so far the legislation has languished.

The Kochs have the power to change that. Their clout on the right could help sway more conservatives to support criminal justice efforts. Most of the likely 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls have supported some kind of criminal-justice reforms. Given the Kochs’ commitment to the issue, candidates might be wise to make issues like curbing the prison population a larger campaign theme.

Holden says the Kochs won’t make criminal justice a political litmus test, in the way that they have focused attention on issues like health-care reform or environmental regulations. At the same time, “to the extent that there are candidates that are working on these issues we care about,” Holden says, “we’re probably going to want to support candidates who are in favor of helping people, helping the disadvantaged with their policies.”

Compared to their spending on elections, the money the Kochs are funneling toward justice reform is modest. Their network plans to fork out nearly $900 million in advance of the 2016 election, according to reports—nearly as much as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney corralled in 2016 to support their campaigns. And Holden says there are no plans at the moment to increase the financial support for justice reform or form a new nonprofit devoted to the issue, although he wouldn’t rule it out. “It depends on what the opportunities are. If we see coalitions building and real change coming, and it’s consistent with our values and beliefs,” Holden says, “we’ll be all over it. We don’t necessarily start out saying we’re going to spend this much this year.”

And the momentum is building. “It’s not a left-right issue,” Holden says. “It’s all about what’s right for the country. There’s so much that everyone fights about, and there’s a commonality here.”

TIME Congress

Former CBS Reporter Takes Case Against Obama to Congress

Loretta Lynch Howard Sorority Sisters
Alma S. Adams (@RepAdams) via Twitter Congresswoman Alma S. Adams posted this photo on Jan. 28, 2014. "Supporting Greensboro native, Loretta Lynch, in her confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General. #NC12"

Sharyl Attkisson gets a large perch to project her lawsuit's claims

Former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, a high-profile plaintiff suing the Justice Department for alleged computer hacking, received a national audience on Thursday to project her claims before Congressmen who will chose her defendant’s successor.

As a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, Attkisson broadly knocked the Obama Administration for punishing those who cross it.

“The message has already been received: if you cross the Administration with perfectly accurate reporting that they don’t like: you will be attacked and punished,” she said in her opening remarks. “You and your sources may be subjected to the kind of surveillance devised for enemies of the state.”

But Attkisson also repeated claims that she makes in her case: that forensic investigation confirm “intrusive, long-term remote surveillance” of her work. “That included keystroke monitoring, password capture, use of Skype to listen into audio and exfiltrate files, and more,” she said.

The Justice Department has repeatedly denied any effort to hack Attkisson. “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer or other media device she may own or use,” the Department said in a statement in 2013.

Attkisson is seeking $35 million in damages, alleging that the Administration illegally monitored her work as she reported on the Benghazi attacks, Fast and Furious and Obamacare, according to reports.

The Washington Post reports that of the four witnesses called by Republicans, three are involved in lawsuits against the Administration.

As the hearing commenced, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy objected to using the Lynch confirmation process as a forum for hearing unrelated grievances. “Barack Obama is not the nominee,” said Leahy. “That may come as a surprise to some who heard some of the questions [yesterday.] Eric Holder is not the nominee. Loretta Lynch, the daughter of Lorine and the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, a U.S. Attorney twice unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate, one who has been applauded for her law enforcement work—that’s who is being called upon to consider.”

Lynch has gained the support of some senior Republicans, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called the nominee “exceptionally well qualified and a good person to boot” during the hearing.

 

TIME Australia

Australia Court Rules the Month-Long Detention of Migrants at Sea Was Legal

Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney
David Gray—Reuters Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney Oct. 11, 2014

The case brought attention to Australia's controversial immigration policy

Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday that the nearly month-long detention of 157 ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka aboard a sea vessel last year was legal under the government’s Marine Powers Act.

The narrow 4-3 decision means that the detainees, of whom 50 were children, will not receive damages for their alleged false imprisonment, according to the judgment summaries.

Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, which formed part of the Sri Lankans’ legal team, expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations.”

Liberal Party MP Scott Morrison, who held the post of immigration minister when the Sri Lankans were detained, tweeted his approval of the decision.

The Sri Lankans had boarded a boat in India last June but were intercepted 16 days later in the Indian Ocean by an Australian customs ship.

After weeks of being held on the ship, the group was transferred to the Curin detention center in Western Australia because the Indian government said they would consider taking them back, according to Reuters.

When the group refused to meet with Indian officials, they were moved to another immigration center, this time on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they will remain until their status as refugees is decided.

The ethnic Tamils were heading to Australia to claim refugee status, claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka following the end of the island-nation’s bloody civil war in 2009.

The case highlights Australia’s controversial immigration policy in which immigrants are often processed at offshore camps in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and Nauru.

Canberra says the restrictions are in place for the safety of immigrants risking their lives to reach its shores by sea.

TIME LGBT

Saks Backtracks in Transgender Discrimination Case

2014 Holiday Shopping Windows - Chicago, Illinois
Chris McKay—Getty Images

The company will no longer argue that transgender people lack legal protections

Luxury retailer Saks & Co. has dropped a controversial legal argument they put forward in December: that there’s no federal law prohibiting the company from discriminating against someone for being transgender.

Leyth Jamal, a former employee who identifies as a transgender woman, is suing Saks for discrimination in Texas. She alleges that she was mistreated by the company and ultimately fired because she is transgender. In response, Saks claimed that Title VII, the portion of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sex, doesn’t cover transgender people.

On Jan. 26, after public criticism and a legal rebuke from the Department of Justice, Saks withdrew the motion. The change was first reported by Buzzfeed. Saks will continue to contest Jamal’s suit, but will now focus on the merits of her specific claims.

MORE Does Saks Have the Right to Fire a Transgender Employee?

Saks’ original position was contrary to recent federal court rulings and the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice. In December 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that all lawyers in the department would be taking the position that transgender discrimination is covered as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In the Justice Department’s motion, officials assert a “strong interest” in the outcome of the case. And their response to Saks’ initial argument is summed up concisely: “Not so.”

TIME Courts

Hunt for Impartial Jurors Delays Boston Bombing Trial

FBI Release Images Of Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects
Handout—Getty Images In this image released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on April 19, 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19-years-old, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing is seen.

“Make sure he gets what he deserves," wrote a prospective juror

Finding impartial jurors in the case of alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is proving harder than expected, a federal court in Boston announced Thursday, and the trial that was set to begin next week will be delayed.

Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr. had scheduled opening statements to start on Monday but decided that date was now “unrealistic” given how many jurors had to be dismissed since the voir dire process began Jan. 15, the Los Angeles Times reports. Some said they were already convinced Tsarnaev was guilty, while others stated they could never agree with the death penalty.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers have argued that it will be impossible to find a fair jury in the Boston area, which was reeling after the deadly attack at the Boston Marathon finish line in April 2013. On Thursday, they requested for a third time that the judge move the trial, as 68% of the 1,373,-member jury pool admitted to already thinking of Tsarnaev as guilty.

“I am set in my ways and this kid is GUILTY,” the defense team said one person wrote on the secretive questionnaires. “Quit wasting everybody’s time with a jury and string him up,” said another. And a third wrote: “Make sure he gets what he deserves.”

Last week, the lawyers also asked for a trial delay until the publicity surrounding the recent terrorist attacks in Paris calmed down. O’Toole has repeatedly denied requests that the trial be delayed and moved out of Boston.

[Los Angeles Times]

TIME justice

Seattle to Begin DNA Testing on Backlogged Rape Kits

TIME Here’s What Happens When You Get a Rape Kit Exam

Police will test 1,276 stored kits from the past 10 years

The Seattle Police Department announced Thursday it would begin to test 1,276 backlogged rape kits.

“We will test all sexual-assault kits moving forward and begin addressing untested kits,” Capt. Deanna Nollette, supervisor of the SPD’s Special Victims Unit, said in a statement. The cost of testing, which can cost from $500 to $1,500 per kit, has created a backlog of what experts estimate to be hundreds of thousands of rape kits at police departments across the country.

Sexual-assault victims usually undergo a forensic exam that includes taking blood, saliva and semen samples after reporting an assault. In Washington, kits are sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, which cross-references DNA samples with an FBI database of DNA profiles. Even though the Seattle Police Department has collected 1,641 rape kits over the last 10 years, only 365 have been tested by the state crime lab. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the city’s police spokesman, said last year that it was department policy to only test rape kits when charges were filed.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance pledged $35 million to eliminating the backlog or rape kits across the country in November, saying that victims deserved to see that the invasive exams were conducted for a purpose. The announcement has spurred police departments nationwide to become more vigilant about testing evidence in sex crimes cases.

Read more: In Hot Pursuit of Cold Cases

TIME justice

Obama’s Police Task Force Faces Uphill Battle

Barack Obama Policing Task Force Charles Ramsey Laurie Robinson
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama speaks after a meeting on building trust in communities following Ferguson unrest, with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (L) and George Mason University professor of Criminology, Law and Society Laurie Robinson, who were appointed by Obama to chair a task force on policing, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Dec. 1, 2014.

Can a panel launched after Ferguson actually bring real change?

In the politician’s arsenal, a task force is a dull yet indispensable weapon: a way to address a problem that isn’t easy to solve.

Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama has created panels to study issues ranging from climate change to gun control to childhood obesity. Task forces are the place where hard-working people go to produce important work that winds up moldering on a shelf.

Obama is determined to avoid this fate for his new White House panel on 21st century policing. “This is not going to be an endless report that ends up collecting dust,” the President pledged when he formed the task force in December after grand juries in New York and Ferguson, Mo., declined to charge two white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men. The 11-member group is tasked with identifying concrete ways to mend the ruptured relationship between police and the communities they serve. It must present a draft report to Obama on March 2, recommending methods to strengthen public trust while reducing crime.

Ron Davis, executive director of the task force and the director of the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), says he is “extremely confident” the committee will live up to its promise. Davis told a panel held by the U.S. Conference of Mayors Thursday that the task force, which will hold a series of listening sessions, panel discussions and open forums over the next few weeks, had an opportunity to “redefine policing in a democratic society.”

The mandate to do so comes from the top. Attorney General Eric Holder has seized police reform as a legacy issue. At Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Obama said he believes there is broad consensus to repair the rift between police forces and minority communities.

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed,” the President said. “Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”

But channeling modest consensus into real change is a tall order—one made trickier by a grim drumbeat of bad feelings and worse news. The killing of two New York City police officers in late December sparked an ugly public dispute between the nation’s largest police force and its liberal mayor and may have led to a huge plummet in arrests. On Wednesday, new reports indicated federal authorities investigating the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown have concluded there is insufficient evidence to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting. A broader Department of Justice probe into the practices of the entire Ferguson police force is ongoing.

“I’m realistic about what a task force is actually capable of,” says a person with knowledge of the task force proceedings, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the committee’s challenges. “The task force can be very useful, but we are now in a place politically where actually creating legislation out of things will be an uphill battle.”

There are small signs of progress. In December, Congress passed a law requiring police departments to report the death of a person in police custody to the Justice Department. Obama has asked for $263 million in funding for new body cameras and training for police departments. He also ordered a review of a federal program that supplies millions of dollars of military equipment to municipal police departments.

Several prominent Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have called for the party to address criminal-justice policies that harm minority communities. Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, a top conservative donor, is redoubling his efforts to enact criminal-justice reforms. The growing number of elected Republicans calling for justice reform has brightened the prospect of legislative action.

On Thursday the Conference of Mayors released a report to help local law enforcement and politicians address the issue. “There’s a growing gulf of mistrust between police and communities they serve,” says Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The report outlined six areas of focus, from building trust between cops and communities to addressing racial and economic disparities. Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Ind., and the chair of the mayoral working group that produced the report, argued the groundswell of anger in the aftermath of Ferguson offered a chance to address long-simmering tensions. “With every tragedy comes opportunity,” she says.

The report is full of sensible ideas, but short on concrete detail. And some of its specific suggestions drew immediate opposition. David Berger, the mayor of Lima, Ohio, bristled at the recommendation that police departments hand over responsibility for investigating officer-involved deaths to an independent official as a way to “increase public confidence.” Berger noted that Lima did just that in 2008, when police in that city shot a young mother to death and wounded her infant child after arriving at her home to arrest a companion on suspicion of drug dealing. The decision, he says, left the city unable to provide basic information about a case roiling the community, compounding the “dramatic trauma” caused by the incident.

Davis said he couldn’t comment on the recommendations of the task force until its work wraps up in early March. Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis educator who was appointed to serve on the task force for her work organizing the Ferguson protests, said in an interview that she was optimistic about the panel and would focus on ensuring the street protests that followed Brown’s death led to concrete action. “I just don’t see us making progress if disruptive change and systemic change don’t go hand in hand,” she says. “I am trying to make sure the connection is fruitful.”

TIME Crime

Ohio Man Indicted for Plot to Attack U.S. Capitol

Christopher Lee Cornell has been charged with attempted to kill officers of the government and other violent crimes

A federal grand jury in Ohio has indicted a man accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol by detonating pipe bombs and shooting government officials.

Christopher Lee Cornell, 20, was charged with attempting to kill government employees, solicitation to commit a crime and possession of a firearm, the Justice Department said in a statement. The first two charges are punishable by 20 years in prison while the third charge can bring 5 years in prison.

He was arrested Jan. 14 outside a gun shop after having come onto federal agents radar over the summer for suspicious postings on social media, in which he sought help to carry out an attack inspired by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. In subsequent court documents, the Associated Press reports, the FBI said Cornell had planned to “wage jihad”; he had been interacting with an FBI informant for months while agents carried out their investigation.

Cornell’s father has said his son didn’t have the means to carry out a violent attack and believes he was coerced by the informant. His arraignment is scheduled for Thursday.

TIME justice

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Beards in Prison

Arkansas Department of Corrections Gregory Houston Holt, an Arkansas prisoner who says he should be allowed to keep a beard on religious grounds.

"An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1⁄2-inch beard," Justice Alito wrote

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in favor of the religious freedom claims of an Arkansas prisoner, who was blocked from growing a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith by the Department of Corrections.

In a 9-0 opinion the Court ruled that part of the Arkansas prison policy violates a federal statute designed to protect the religious freedom of prisoners, NBC reports.

The Arkansas rule was challenged by inmate Gregory Holt, a Muslim who said that he was forced to choose between violating his religious beliefs and facing disciplinary action in prison.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion that the state has a good reason to try and prevent the concealment of contraband on prisoner’s bodies, but that the Arkansas rule banning beards infringes on Holt’s religious freedom.

“An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1⁄2-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out,” Alito said. “Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head.”

[NBC]

TIME Crime

Jury Selection Begins in James Holmes Murder Trial

James Holmes sits in court for an advisement hearing at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colo. on June 4, 2013.
Andy Cross—Pool/Reuters James Holmes sits in court for an advisement hearing at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colo. on June 4, 2013.

9,000 Colorado residents have been called for jury selection

An unprecedented pool of 9,000 jurors will travel to a Colorado courthouse on Tuesday where jury selection will begin in the long-awaited trial of James Holmes for a gun massacre in Aurora.

Holmes is charged in the 2012 mass shooting during a late-night screening of The Dark Knight Rises that left 12 dead and 70 injured.

Jurors will travel to the Arapahoe County courthouse in groups of 250 starting Tuesday, where each will fill out a 75-question survey, Denver’s ABC 7 affiliate reports. Jury selection is expected to drag on for months, reflecting the difficult of finding an impartial jury for such a high profile case.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the first-degree and attempted murder charges brought forth by prosecutors; if he is found guilty of the crimes, jurors would have to decide whether or not he gets the death penalty. If he’s found not guilty, Holmes would be committed to a mental institution.

Denver’s ABC affiliate has a full break-down of the jury selection schedule here.

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