‘Since I Left Prison, I Haven’t Stopped Running’: Alice Johnson And Charles Koch’s Fight For Sentencing Reform

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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Palm Springs, Calif. — It didn’t make national news in 1997 when Alice Johnson was sentenced to life in prison for her role in a Tennessee cocaine-smuggling network. Democratic and Republican politicians and donors, fresh off decades of urban chaos and drug violence, didn’t mind that this was her first conviction, nor that it was non-violent. Yet just over 20 years later and very much alive, she’s seated at the a table of reporters in sunny California, flanked by leaders of Charles Koch’s massive donor network and free from prison after Kim Kardashian interceded on her behalf with President Donald Trump.

If 20 years ago you’d placed a bet at a Palm Springs casino on that sequence of events, you might have made enough money to be a member of the elite donors gathered here this weekend.

“Since I left prison, I haven’t stopped running,” Johnson, now 63, told reporters while her two sisters watched from the back. “I’m running for those who are left behind, who don’t have a voice, whose faces you may never see but by seeing my face and hearing my story you’re hearing their stories too, because truly I don’t have a unique story. There are so many others.”

On Sunday, Johnson will speak at the biannual meeting of billionaire libertarian industrialist Charles Koch’s Seminar Network as one of the many human faces of the hard-fought battle for the First Step Act that President Trump signed into law with broad bipartisan support at the sunset of Republican control of Congress — and mere hours before partisan battles would shut the federal government down for the longest stretch in U.S. history.

“I think the reason we were able to get comprehensive sentencing reform is because of Alice Johnson,” Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and a leader on their push for the act, told reporters. Who goes to prison and what for and for how long? “There were certain people in the White House who didn’t understand,” he says.

“One thing that I know for sure, and that is that people don’t remember statistics but they really remember a face,” Johnson told reporters, “so [at Sunday’s meeting] I’ll be telling my story to humanize the issue of the further need for criminal justice reform and the need to give returning citizens a chance.”

In the effort to pass the legislation, Holden partnered with Van Jones, the left-wing commentator and activist, along with a number of other unlikely allies. That coalition represents a renewed focus in the network’s strategy that was touted at their July meeting in Colorado Springs: coalitions that cross the ideological spectrum. (RELATED: What Washington And The Media Still Get So Wrong About The Kochs)

“I got what I call an un-executed death sentence,” Johnson says. “It was easy to give up … but looking around at the other women there who were so broken, so dejected, I saw opportunities. … The day that I left prison, it’s something I’ll never forget — it sounded like an earthquake. … They were rejoicing to see my walking out of prison. As I kept walking, the screaming became louder.”

“There were others lined up at camp along with officers. There were so many tears to see me walk out of prison, to see me walk out alive.”

Among the organizations gathered for the winter meeting are Chrysalis and The Last Mile — both previously established groups devoted to training prisoners and rehabilitating former convicts. Both have benefited from a large influx of money and resources from the network after they were identified by Stand Together, a Koch-run organization tasked with identifying and assisting non-profits its staff believe are both effective and aligned with its mission.

“Our efforts are much deeper than [public policy],” Koch Institute President Brian Hooks said. “That’s not enough. We need to help people who shouldn’t be in prison have a path out of prison, but we also need to recognize that once they’re out of prison they need a path to success.”

The first 2019 meeting of the Seminar Network brings together allied leaders and organizations with 634 “partners,” or donors who give $100,000 or more per year, and over 100 new attendees.

The libertarian network, which is is made up of largely center-right, conservative and Republican donors, is frequently hit by players on the left and the right, with sometimes-ally Van Jones protesting one of its 2011 meetings and sometimes-ally President Trump targeting them for opposition to his trade and immigration agenda in tweets sent during their July meeting. Despite a reputation for national campaign politics, since its inception in 2003 the network has worked in a number of less political areas, particularly education, community and poverty. (RELATED: Kochs Slam GOP: ‘This Network Will No Longer Follow Anyone’s Lead Or Be Taken For Granted’)

“A large part of [the network’s effectiveness] is due to its partnership with so many of [the donors],” Charles Koch told attendees at a reception Saturday evening, “but also because its learned to unite with people all across the spectrum of viewpoints, with different ideas, including those who have been adversaries in the past.”

“It’s been a continuous search throughout my life and my career to find a partner,” football and baseball legend Deion Sanders, who has worked with the network for years to help the poor in Dallas, told reporters earlier in the afternoon. “Even if we don’t agree on everything, we still could stand together as one, like in a huddle. … And I found it and I’m happy, I’m elated. Only part I’m sad about is I wish I’d found them earlier. A lot of the hiccups, a lot of the mistakes and the adolescence that I dealt with– I wouldn’t have done that.” (RELATED: Deion Sanders Is On The Same Team As Charles Koch)

“The reason I’m so passionate about being here today is I found a group of people who are like-minded, who want to make a difference, who want to be that one,” Johnson said. “Each one of us have something that we can do. When you sow into someone’s life your sowing into their family’s life, you’re sowing into their community’s life, you’re sowing into society’s life.”

“You’re talking about human beings. You’re talking about lives. And if someone don’t care, if someone don’t dare to care, they won’t be successful.”

Editor’s note: Christopher Bedford is editor in chief of The Daily Caller News Foundation, a non-profit that does investigative reporting and trains journalists. It is supported by donors, including individuals, corporations and non-profits, and including The Charles G. Koch Institute and The Charles G. Koch Foundation. From 2010-2011, Bedford was an associate at the Charles Koch Foundation, where he spent a year studying economics, philosophy and business management.  

Follow Bedford on Twitter