Billionaire Charles Koch and a coalition of business groups on Sunday announced a push to encourage companies to hire workers with criminal records, following the recent passage of a federal prison and sentencing reform law.
The influential network aligned with Koch has teamed up with the Society of Human Resources Management, the trade group for corporate HR directors, on the new initiative.
Johnny Taylor, the group’s president, said the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Association and the National Restaurant Association have joined the effort, which includes a tool-kit that helps businesses navigate how to hire former inmates.
The announcement came during a three-day retreat for conservative donors who make up Koch’s influential policy and political network.
“If all of us joined together, think of what a difference we can make,” Koch, the 83-year-old head of a Kansas-based industrial conglomerate told a ballroom packed with some 700 donors and nonprofit activists on the second day of his network’s winter summit.
He called on other top executives to follow Koch Industries’ lead and adopt a so-called “ban the box” policy, which drops questions about criminal histories from employment applications.
Criminal-justice reform advocates say the practice sets up unfair barriers to employment for former inmates. Koch’s companies removed the question from its applications in 2015.
Other well-known figures voiced support for the effort. For instance, British business magnate Richard Branson delivered his own appeal to fellow CEOs in attendance via a recorded video, saying his companies “actively recruit people with prior convictions.”
The new push comes as the Koch networks seek to pivot away from the political activity for which Koch and his younger brother, David, were known – and vilified by Democrats – and focus on areas of bipartisan accord.
Exhibit A for Koch officials: Their work with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and liberal activists, such as CNN host and commentator Van Jones, to shepherd the bipartisan First Step Act through Congress last year. The measure allows thousands of prisoners in the federal system to earn earlier release and eases mandatory minimum sentences. It also changes some rules on prisoner treatment, including banning the practice of shackling women during childbirth.
Kushner, Jones and Koch Industries’ general counsel Mark Holden all had roles in a video shown to donors Sunday, charting their struggles to pass the law.
One key to its passage: The plight of Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother who was serving a life-sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. Trump commuted her sentence last June, after Kim Kardashian West made a personal appeal to the President.
In an emotional speech to the Koch donors, Johnson said the sentence she received guaranteed the “only way I would be reunited with my family would be as a corpse.”
In prison, Johnson mentored other inmates, wrote and produced plays, and volunteered in the prison hospice. But it wasn’t until Kardashian West took up her cause after seeing a viral video about her on Mic that Johnson had any hope of release.
On Sunday, Johnson recalled the “deafening cry” that rose in the prison as she walked to freedom. “Women were in every single window, beating on the bars and screaming my name, saying: ‘Please don’t forget about us.’
Johnson, 63, said she’s now “fighting for those women and for the men who have been left behind.”