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Koch Brothers, White House Seize Momentum on Criminal Justice Reform

It was the fourth time Mark Holden has been to the White House. Four times more than most would expect a top lieutenant for the Koch Brothers to step foot in the complex during President Barack Obama's administration.

The most recent, which was last Wednesday, has been hailed as a successful meeting between the two parties and another important step contributing to the momentum to reform the criminal justice system.

Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and spearheading the organization’s efforts on the issue, met with Valerie Jarrett, one of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers as well as two other members of the administration.

“The meeting went really well,” Holden enthusiastically said in an interview shortly after the meeting.

A statement from the White House called the meeting “productive.”

Jarrett and Holden will appear again Wednesday at the same conference in Washington, D.C. focusing on one component of reform: re-entry into society for people leaving prison.

Mike Thompson, director at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, an organizer of the conference, which he says is the biggest one yet, said the issue has seen more momentum than the issue has received in decades.

“This is one of those rare times we do really see that bipartisan consensus, and you’re (also) seeing that play out in states across the country,” Thompson said.

The last meeting between Jarrett and Holden ensured that reform is still on track. The group concluded that the best path forward is to coalesce around one bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support earlier this year: the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

Like with many acts of compromise, the left and the right have their complaints and no one is completely happy with the Senate bill but have agreed that it’s the best first step.

One issue that has threatened to derail progress on criminal justice reform: mens rea, which is that a person’s intention when committing a crime is taken into account during sentencing. The Koch brothers and conservative groups say mens rea has disappeared from criminal proceedings and want it reinstated.

Holden says he “reiterated” the position that the Koch brothers “are not advocating for it" this year.

“We don’t want it to stand in the way of the other reforms that we are really focused on,” Holden said.

The Senate bill aims to reduce recidivism, release elderly prisoners, and limit solitary confinement of juveniles. It also reduces some mandatory minimum sentences, which have put people with low level drug offenses in prison for decades or even for life.

Advocates hope a similar version in the House is passed shortly after the New Year.