We're in the Jailhouse Now
The Justice Policy Institute, a criminal-justice-reform advocacy group, has a report out today about America's for-profit prison industry. First, before the gnashing of teeth on both sides begins, let me state the obvious: there is nothing inherently wrong, or even objectionable, about private companies running prisons. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest such company, operated 66 "correction and detention facilities" in 2010, and saw $1.67 billion in revenue. In its 2010 annual report it said it "benefits from significant economies of scale", and it well may, particularly when compared to corrections departments in low-population states. (Having said that, evidence that private prisons offer significant cost savings to their state-run counterparts is both thinner and more ambiguous in practice than in theory.) Nothing in the constitution says that prisoners must be held in government-owned or -operated facilities, and as the report explains, American prisons tended to be privately owned before the advent of the penitentiary system. For its shareholders CCA has done well, increasing its revenue every year in the last ten as the share of prisoners held in private facilities has risen (the second-largest prison-operator, the GEO Group, saw similar rises but had a dip from 2004 to 2005).
But for these companies to do well, people have to go to prison. Again, this is not in and of itself a problem: there are for-profit hospitals, and for them to do well people have to get sick. The difference is that for-profit hospitals tend not to poison people and break legs to keep their beds fully occupied, while for-profit prisons, as the JPI's report explains, tend to lobby for policies that serve them: harsher prison sentences and greater reliance on incarceration than on probation and parole. Admittedly, the report shows a great deal more smoke than fire, and its most damning intimation—that private-prison lobbyists were behind Arizona's immigration bill—overlooks the regrettable popularity of such measures. And, once again, companies are free to lobby for their own interests.
The problem is that their interests—imprisoning more people and keeping them in jail for longer periods of time—are not ours. Imprisoning people is expensive, ineffective and increasingly unpopular. It is that latter quality that may provide the greatest amount of hope. For years criminal-justice reform failed because it was seen as soft on crime. No politician wants to advocate for murderers and child molesters (never mind that most prisoners are in for non-violent drug offences). Hence, for instance, the government's sloth in combating prison rape. And prisoners cannot plead their cases as effectively as prison builders can plead theirs—the former tend to be poor, so they cannot afford lobbyists, and are often disenfranchised, and thus have no political representation.
But recently groups like the Pew Centre on the States and Right on Crime have rebranded reform efforts as "smart on crime", rather than soft. And in a time of declining crime rates and tight state budgets, smart reforms are gaining ground, and most aim to reduce the prison population. That may not be in the interest of CCA—the firm says as much in its 2010 anual report—but it's high time for good sense to trump good lobbying and cowardly politics.
Originally posted here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/06/americas-prisons
Posted in JPI in the News