Nathalie Baptiste

Nathalie Baptiste is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

Koch Campaign Strains Criminal Justice Coalition

Until recently, progressives have largely embraced the involvement of the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch in the push for criminal justice reform, including changes in mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Before conservative activists embraced the issue, the crisis of mass incarceration had largely languished on the back burner. But the involvement of the Kochs and an unusual left-right coalition of conservative and liberal activists helped push sentencing reforms to the front burner on Capitol Hill.

But now progressives are looking at the Kochs’ involvement with a more skeptical eye. A House bill introduced last month by Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, includes a provision that critics say would undermine corporate criminal prosecutions by requiring proof that a defendant knew his or her actions were illegal in order to be found guilty.

Known as “mens rea” in legal parlance, the provision would make it harder for prosecutors to prove corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives say the provision could prevent “morally blameless individuals and entities” from being burdened with criminal convictions for life. But critics on the left say it just raises the bar for prosecuting white-collar crimes—like the ones such corporate titans as the Kochs might be accused of.

Last month the House introduced a measure that addressed criminal justice reforms. Sensenbrenner’s Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015 includes a provision that some say undermines corporate criminal prosecution by requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant knows the law, or that a reasonable person would, and that the crime was committed knowingly.

“They absolutely do want that corporate crime provision,” says Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “According to them, it’s good policy.” Public Citizen put out a statement last month criticizing the provision saying that it, “aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, in a vehicle where it doesn’t belong.”

The controversy has been threatening to unravel the left-right coalition that has rallied behind criminal justice reform, which includes such players as the ACLU and the Open Society Foundation on the left, and Right on Crime and Heritage Foundation on the right. But in a confidential meeting last week, the >Washington Post has disclosed, Koch Industries representatives agreed that the provision should be dropped if it jeopardizes the criminal justice overhaul. They have said that they support the Senate version of the criminal justice legislation, which does not include the mens rea provision.

Whatever the outcome, the mens rea fight also raises an important question: Are the Koch brothers motivated by self-interest or compassion when it comes to criminal justice reform?

The Kochs and their conservative allies say the issue is one of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom. They argue that it costs too much to imprison so many people and the government shouldn’t be punishing citizens for low-level and victimless crimes.

But the Kochs have personal reasons for getting involved, too. Charles and David Kochs’ fight for criminal justice reform began in the 1990s, when the Justice Department filed a criminal case against Koch Industries claiming that the company covered up the release of hazardous air pollution at oil refinery in Texas, in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Koch Industries pleaded guilty and paid a $20 million penalty. According to Koch Industries’ general counsel and senior vice president, Mark Holden, the Koch brothers had no criminal intent—but the Justice Department still pursued the case anyway. The Department of Justice denied that the case against Koch Industries was groundless. The provision at issue in Sensenbrenner’s bill, known as the Criminal Code Improvement Act, directly addresses these kinds of cases.

Nevertheless, Holden has said that Koch Industries would still support the bill even if the corporate criminal provision were excluded.

And organizers at the Charles Koch Institute, the leading Koch-linked entity working on the criminal justice issue, say they are committed to reforming the justice system. “No matter which bill or bills are considered,” says Vikrant P. Reddy, who is a senior research fellow at the institute, “it is essential that our country grapple with the deep, systemic flaws in the criminal justice system.”

Todd Cox, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on criminal justice reform, remains hopeful and says he expects the bill to move forward—without the mens rea provision. To Cox, criminal justice reform is about tackling our mass incarceration problem. “You don’t need that provision in order to reform criminal justice,” he says.

For all the strains the mens rea fight has introduced, Weissman, for one, is prepared to give the Kochs the benefit of the doubt. He says he doesn’t believe that the Koch brothers are disingenuous in their crusade against mass incarceration.

“There’s no reason to believe they don’t,” he says. “They just also believe in helping corporate criminals get off the hook."

This story has been updated.

Oregon Surveillance of Black Lives Matter Spotlights Racial Profiling Challenge

Allegations against the Oregon office tasked with combating racially targeted surveillance are reminiscent of the illegal monitoring of activists during the civil-rights movement.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
When Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum received a letter on November 10 from the Urban League of Portland alleging that the state’s justice department was conducting digital surveillance of Salem Twitter users who used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, she was appalled. Among those monitored was Erious Johnson Jr., the director of the Civil Rights Division and a member of Rosenblum’s executive team. And Rosenblum herself was engaged in an effort to combat racially targeted surveillance—not promote it. Rosenblum chairs a state task force that was created by a state bill enacted in July, which aims to end profiling by Oregon law enforcement agencies. The so-called Law Enforcement Profiling Task Force is scheduled to send a report on the law’s implementation to the Oregon State Legislature on December 1. The fact that the very surveillance activities that Rosenblum and her task force had set out to combat were happening in her own agency highlights the...

Republicans Call Bernie Sanders Absurd for Agreeing with the Pentagon

During last Saturday’s Democratic debate on CBS, the moderator asked Bernie Sanders if he still believed that climate change is the greatest threat to national security—and he said yes. Republican senators scoffed at his claim that climate change could lead to destabilization and more terrorism, calling it “unrelated,” “disingenuous,” and even “absurd.” But what the GOP fails to realize is that even the Pentagon has acknowledged the very real threat climate change poses to our security.

The 2014 Department of Defense Climate Change Adaptation Road Map report details all the ways our changing climate will impact international conflict and military operations. Sea level rise and more extreme weather events will exacerbate ongoing global conflicts. The effects of climate change will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, as well as disputes over refugees and dwindling resources.

The Pentagon report does not just allude to terrorism—it mentions it by name:

“We refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

The report goes on to explain how climate change could topple fragile governments by creating an environment that fosters extreme ideologies and terrorism.

But Republicans on Tuesday (the same day the Senate voted to undo President Obama’s power-plant regulations) treated Sanders as if he had made a ludicrous claim. “There is a ballot initiative in Arizona concerning the substance that he must have been consuming,” Senator John McCain said, referring to a measure that would legalize marijuana.

The people at the Defense Department must have had a great time writing that report.

Campus Cops: Authority Without Accountability

Private campus police departments often have less transparency but just as much power as city police.

(Photo: AP/Stacie Freudenberg)
Gil Collar was only 18 years old when, in 2012, he ingested a hallucinogenic drug, stripped naked, and banged on the windows of the police station at the University of South Alabama where he was a freshman. When Officer Trevis Austin heard the commotion, he opened the door and fatally shot Collar. The campus police officer claimed that Collar charged towards him, but surveillance footage shows that Gil Collar never lunged or came within four feet of the police officer. In September, a federal judge cleared Austin of any wrongdoing. College campuses began hiring their own police more than a century ago. But the exact rights and responsibilities of campus cops are a crazy quilt of different practices and standards. Even at their most professional, college police forces are required to disclose far less than their public counterparts. It’s one more case of privatization producing more confusion and less accountability. In response to tension between city police officers and college...

The Crazier Ben Carson's Statements Are, the Higher His Poll Numbers Go

Yesterday on Meet the Press, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson told host Chuck Todd that women who have abortions are like slave owners. As delusional as that comparison is, it’s unlikely that it’ll derail his candidacy—in fact, it’ll probably just push him even further into the lead. With every bizarre, racist, or sexist Donald Trump comment, pollsters were predicting his demise, but Trump continued to do well in polls. And it looks Ben Carson is about to follow that trajectory.

The neurosurgeon turned right-wing fringe candidate is polling at 28 percent in Iowa, where the first round of votes will be cast—a healthy nine points above Trump. If this were 20 years ago, Carson’s penchant for comparing anything and everything to slavery or Nazi Germany would disqualify him from running for president of a tin-foil-hat club, let alone president of the United States. But this is no regular election.

In the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, Iowa Republicans were asked to rate how attractive they found Carson’s candidacy, based on some of his more bizarre statements. Eighty-one percent of responders found his comparison of the Affordable Care Act to slavery “very attractive” or “mostly attractive.” Seventy-three percent liked that he raised questions about whether or not a Muslim should be president of the United States, and 77 percent were onboard when he said that if Jews had been armed, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to kill so many people.  

In this election, crazy statements are rewarded with higher poll numbers. As Paul Waldman wrote in the Prospect, the Republican Party has spent so much of the last six years or so riling up its base and making people angry with the establishment, that the doors are now wide open for outsiders. These outsiders’ campaigns against career politicians have worked so well, a man who has never held a position in government and who believes that making health care more affordable is tantamount to American slavery is the newest frontrunner.