Beware of Big Philanthropy’s New Enthusiasm for Criminal Justice Reform

Beware of Big Philanthropy’s New Enthusiasm for Criminal Justice Reform

Beware of Big Philanthropy’s New Enthusiasm for Criminal Justice Reform

Wealthy donors across the political spectrum are zeroing in on our jails and prisons as the latest locus of privatization.


The Koch brothers are known for campaigning to free corporations from regulations, but who’d have thought they’re also interested in freeing your neighbor from the county jail?

The Koch family empire, led by corporate barons-turned-mega-philanthropists Charles and David Koch, is on a crusade to reform the prison system. As some of the loudest and wealthiest voices in the field, they promote liberalizing sentencing policies for nonviolent offenses, reducing mass incarceration, and generally expanding alternatives to prison. The Kochs’ philanthropic network is backing the recently launched “Safe Streets and Second Chances” initiative to support technology-driven reentry programs for reducing recidivism. Such efforts may seem oddly humanitarian compared to the Kochs’ usual reputation for backing right-wing think tanks and union-busting groups, but in recent years, the Charles Koch Institute’s libertarian evangelism has expanded to embrace the crusade against over-incarceration. The campaign has courted big-name liberals like Van Jones along with Trump administration officials, including hardliner Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But some radical anti-prison advocates fear that corporate tycoons may co-opt a grassroots liberation movement and rebrand it as a libertarian charity industry. These critics fear that the libertarian reformers are more interested in replacing the carceral state with a privatized carceral industry than they are in coming up with humane alternatives to prison. While mass incarceration has become a relatively popular target for reformers, given the swing in public opinion toward rehabilitation and reduced sentencing, corporatizing punishment could lessen state brutality while replacing it with private, less-regulated experiments in social engineering.

The Charles Koch Institute, which aims to promote “free and open society” through libertarian policy and education programs, has launched a new initiative for criminal-justice reform that seems benevolent enough, investing private funds in “second chance” programs to expand opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. But these efforts reflect a broader social engineering agenda of promoting the libertarian vision of a “free society” which champions individual and property rights while shrinking government.

The goal of correcting behavior through private capital now drives charity investments from both the left and the right. The latest focus of this funding has settled on “community corrections” as a supposedly kinder, gentler alternative to imprisonment. A community-corrections system would engage for-profit and non-profit providers of body monitoring technology, bail firms, and drug rehab under the guise of behavioral therapy, “reentry services,” training and “structured” treatment methods.

This drive to decarcerate through private institutions envisions a more “humane,” non-custodial private infrastructure for managing criminality: “securitizing” the accused by offering bond instead of pre-trial jail, “overcoming addiction” through social control, and surveilling people after release from prison.

The transition from state-run to private-sector interventions troubles some progressive groups, who seek a human rights-based, holistic approach to public safety. Progressive reformers argue that “community corrections” parallels prison privatization, as both “solutions” empower private security to replace state institutions, often with fewer regulations, more profit motives, and potentially poorer-quality services. Investments in the “treatment industrial complex” are politically palatable, however, with their focus on rescuing wayward ex-offenders, rather than preventing incarceration overall. 

According to Caroline Isaacs, program director of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Arizona, “Most conservatives are much more comfortable working on the back-end (re-entry) because it protects them from being labeled soft on crime, but allows them to paint themselves as caring reformers who believe in ‘second chances.’” But since reentry initiatives are designed as shock absorbers for the system, not tools for restructuring it, “the focus on reentry essentially waits until people have been churned through the criminal justice system and saddled with a felony conviction before we offer ‘help.’ The reforms in this area are basically trying to soften the collateral consequences that are created by the system,” including poverty and racial segregation.

The trend toward charity-driven criminal-justice reform has grown with the decarceration movement, according to AFSC’s research: by marketing coercive supervision and strict drug treatment programs, the private sector is “moving to capitalize on efforts at the state and federal levels to look at alternatives to prison, a softening of criminal sentencing laws, and a new interest in evidence-based practices in parole, probation, and sentencing.” Major prison corporations like GEO and Core Civic are reportedly gunning for contracts for rehabilitation and “residential reentry” programs.

Needless to say, the private sector getting involved in public issues like criminal justice is not without its risks: A 2012 New York Times report on a New Jersey halfway house documented systematic abuse and neglect of vulnerable clients, with a record of escapes, drug use, and sexual assault under the watch of the Christie administration, a political ally of the contractor. In at least ten states nationwide, mostly in the south, according to AFSC, “municipal courts contract with private, for-profit probation companies.” Bail firms force individuals to choose between extortionate bail rates and jail, with the added threat of reincarceration for violations. Today’s commercial bail industry sucks about $2 billion annually from its “service” population of about one in 45 adults, typically impoverished debtors, with about 14,000 agents operating as a private security state. This “two-tiered” justice system “puts taxpayers on the hook, paying for jail time that is completely unnecessary and counterproductive.”

But what do progressives have to offer as an alternative to the privatized corrections industry? Rather than recycle people through prison-lite programs, radical anti-prison activists want to retool laws, overhaul policing, and expand due process protections to ensure that vulnerable people are not needlessly criminalized. They also want to ensure that criminal justice institutions are not incentivized to harm, but rather, held accountable for providing not just punishment but actual justice, based not only on disciplining individuals but strengthening social cohesion across the community. 

But couldn’t the ends justify the means, despite the donor class’s free-marketeer philosophy? That question gets to the heart of the problem with using private sector financing to solve public needs. “If we give the impression that trivial tweaks to mass incarceration are the answer, the next generation of people that look at the work we did could say, what’s with you guys?” Vincent Schiraldi, a researcher with Columbia University’s Justice Lab, says. “You thought you could tweak your way out of mass incarceration? You’re crazy.”

The bottom line of community corrections is that after infiltrating education, healthcare policy, cultural institutions, and prison, wealthy donors and private industry are promoting similar kinds of small-government politics by privatizing criminal justice. But if prison reform is just another “investment” rather than a societal crisis response, then capital will end up where it’s always found a home in the carceral state: Above the law.

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