|Want to know the real reason the law-and-order set backs mandatory-minimum sentencing? They get their pockets lined by the ‘prison-industrial complex.’|
With aromatic puffs of change, Bay State stoners rejoiced on Election Day. But even the haziest of revelers may have missed the full significance of Question 2, a statewide ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession in small amounts. Not only will this bring more humane and responsible marijuana laws, it will also suppress — however slightly — an insidious, contemporary offshoot of what President Dwight Eisenhower famously referred to as the “military-industrial complex“: the idea that if private industry and government joined in promoting ever-increasing defense spending, war as well as national bankruptcy were more likely.
Almost a half-century later, that mindset has extended to both the local and federal law-and-order sectors, which have argued for, and experienced, virtually unabated growth. Today, law-enforcement groups regularly lobby against criminal-punishment reforms, and for the creation of new criminal statutes and overly harsh prison sentences. While these efforts are cloaked as calls for public safety, they are essentially creating more business for themselves.
The problem has become so widespread that some private correctional corporations — companies that subcontract services, and even privately owned jails and prisons, to all levels of government — have even lobbied the government to enact and maintain ever broader criminal laws and higher sentences. Those private prisons are now rolling in the profit, and taking on more prisoners every day as federal and state prisons run out of room to house their inmates.
But these lobbyists’ success — and that of various law-enforcement groups — has given rise to a veritable “prison-industrial complex” that not only uses fear to suppress these groups’ true intentions — it leaves taxpayers footing the bill.
Bleak house of detention
It was with these self-aggrandizing interests in mind that the Massachusetts Districts Attorneys’ Association (MDAA) and other tough-on-crime groups fiercely opposed the marijuana-decriminalization referendum.
After all, if the penalties for minor marijuana possession were to remain on the statute books, more police, prosecutors, prison guards, and parole officers — and their lucrative overtime — would also be retained.
To their dismay, however, Question 2 passed by an overwhelming 65 to 35 percent voter margin, and will be implemented 30 days after election results are certified. As a result, many law-enforcement officials may soon be without an important source of job security and additional revenue — namely, the $30 million a year (as one study by a Harvard economics professor estimated) spent enforcing the soon-to-be-history current marijuana-possession laws.
Never mind that the forthcoming statutory reform is, from even a moderate law-and-order perspective, relatively benign. According to Question 2, anyone caught with less than one ounce will forfeit the substance and pay a $100 fine, while minors will additionally have to complete a drug-awareness program (including group sessions and community service). Current penalties for growing and trafficking in marijuana, as well as the prohibition against driving while high, will remain exactly as they are.
These facts were conveniently left out of the MDAA’s efforts to “inform” voters. .The group could not legally make direct contributions to ballot campaigns — publicly funded groups are unable to do so, thanks to a 1978 Supreme Judicial Court decision — yet in opposing Question 2, it still managed to fuel a whisper campaign and add misleading info to its Web site (hosted, by the way, on the state’s “.gov” domain).
Thus, these law-enforcement officials were able to avoid any technical wrongdoing while lobbying for an increased legislative arsenal — feathering their own nests at the expense of liberty and sensible public policy.
Bear in mind, though, that our First Amendment protects not only speech, but also “the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So state and local law-enforcement personnel, like other citizens, do have the right to lobby voters and even members of the legislature to promote more expansive criminal laws and stricter penalties. But self-serving lobbying and public-relations offensives, disguised as seeking protections for society, should be treated with exceptional scrutiny and skepticism.
Though disheartening, their actions are an age-old fact of life best described by Charles Dickens in his classic 1853 novel Bleak House: “The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.”
Coke vs. crack
A similar battle waged in Massachusetts last summer, when law-enforcement groups sought once again to thwart criminal-justice reform. At the time, a legislative effort to help nonviolent offenders find employment opportunities by changing Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws was brought before the State House of Representatives — and, thanks to the efforts of state Attorney General Martha Coakley and other law-enforcement officials, essentially squashed.
The proposed bill would have restricted the type of personal information that some employers receive, thereby assisting the many individuals saddled with CORI records who struggle to find employment and end up back behind bars.
Massachusetts’s recidivism rates are nearly 40 percent, according to a study by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. And the CORI law’s branding of even the most innocuous offender is, by all accounts, partly responsible for this dismal situation. So advocates of the bill asserted that changing CORI could ease the massive overcrowding at the state’s prison system, which the Department of Corrections recently estimated to be operating at “144 percent of capacity.” (Currently, there are 12,000 inmates imprisoned — a disgraceful state record.)
Another aspect of that same failed bill would have reduced mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, which advocates said also contribute to overcrowding.
As the law stands, anyone convicted of selling drugs within 1000 feet of a school zone automatically receives a two-year prison term — leaving no room for judicial discretion. That means a first-time offender with no record could receive more prison time than, say, an armed robber. And the mandatory nature of these sentences eliminates the possibility of parole.
Because of the numerous schools in dense urban areas, poor, black, and Hispanic populations are at a greater risk of facing the mandatory-minimum measures, according to a recent Prison Policy Initiative study.
Yet despite the clear inequalities in the current law, as well as the benefits that reform holds out to both taxpayers and public safety — not to mention liberty — the legislative term ended in July with no action taken on the reform legislation.
This problem with drug sentencing is nothing new. For more than two decades, prison-reform supporters have condemned the federal sentencing disparities for the mostly middle and upper-class defendants caught using cocaine, and the mostly lower-class, inner-city habitants caught with cheaper crack cocaine.
Part of the now-infamous war on crime, a 100-to-1 ratio was implemented in sentencing for crack cocaine. So, a person caught selling five grams of crack received the same prison sentence as someone dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The mandatory-minimums were harsh, too. That same person caught selling five grams of crack received a five-year minimum sentence; 50 grams or more and the minimum was 10 years.
Despite clear racial, economic, and cultural disparities, cries from constituents fell on deaf ears while law-enforcement lobbyists successfully cajoled and frightened congressional leaders.
US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, for one, strongly opposed reducing the crack-cocaine minimums. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a 325,000 member national organization that bills itself as “the voice of our nations’ law-enforcement officers,” also spent $550,000 lobbying Congress over the past three years. Among their interests: stopping the Powder-Crack Cocaine Penalty Equalization Act, along with promoting a litany of other Draconian measures.
To be fair, government employees weren’t the only ones to lobby against crack-cocaine sentence equalization. A little-recognized subset of this vast prison-industrial complex lobbying community is composed of private correctional corporations, which sign lucrative contracts with governments to house inmates for profit, often shipping them to facilities out of state.
It is, of course, in these private prisons’ economic interests to see more people in prison serving longer sentences. And with current facilities bursting at the seams, times for this burgeoning industry are good. The country’s largest private prison provider, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), spent more than $2.7 million from 2006 through September 2008 on lobbying for stricter laws. Last year alone, the company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, generated $133 million in net income.
For the past 25 years, the CCA has built itself into a corrections powerhouse — it operates nearly 70 facilities housing more than 75,000 detainees. As it does for, say, contractors in Iraq, though, privatization comes with an inevitable lack of oversight. The CCA has been involved in numerous wrongful-death lawsuits, and it has been a constant target of prison-reform groups who claim the private facilities are understaffed and their detainees abused.
Yet another private prison provider, the GEO Group, which has annual revenue topping $1 billion, has come under intense scrutiny for dozens — if not hundreds — of inmate deaths in the past decade. One such prisoner death led to the recent indictment of Vice-President Dick Cheney on November 18, in which a rather ornery Texas state prosecutor claimed that Cheney’s substantial investments in the GEO Group made him partly responsible for prisoner abuse — a dubious prosecutorial theory (in fact, it was dismissed this Monday), but with a grain of practical truth.
Nonetheless, states facing prison overcrowding turn to these corporations to outsource inmates. California, for example, has commissioned the CCA to ship convicts as far away as Tennessee (where financially strapped relatives and friends frequently cannot visit). The CCA has exported nearly 4000 California prisoners to states across the country under a $115 million contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Over the next three years, 8000 more are planned to be shipped out of the Golden State.
The societal costs — both human and financial — of these policies and practices are enormous, and growing. California — which carried a $15.2 billion deficit into this fiscal year — spends $10 billion per year on more than 170,000 inmates. Like the Bay State, California also faces high recidivism rates; state records show that more than two-thirds of released inmates return to prison within three years. In this context, a ballot battle — possibly more contentious than Massachusetts’s Question 2 scuffle — raged this past election season. Two separate initiatives, each from vastly different perspectives, concerned the state’s approach to criminal justice.
The first, Proposition 5, would have expanded treatment programs for those convicted of drug-related and nonviolent crimes. While the costs for more rehabilitation were estimated at $1 billion a year, analysts said $2.5 billion would have been saved from the reduction in prison costs. But, much like what transpired in Massachusetts, the California District Attorney’s Association, along with other law-enforcement agencies, vehemently opposed the initiative. These agencies raised nearly $400,000 and, through the Web site of their umbrella group, People Against Proposition 5, issued “facts” such as “Proposition 5 creates an ‘Express Lane’ for drug dealers to get back on the streets and peddling dope to our kids.”
Conversely, nearly $1 billion would have been added to the cops’ coffers under Proposition 6, which proposed new laws for prosecutors to fight gang activity. Many of the same law-enforcement agencies that opposed Prop 5 supported Prop 6, joined by some “tough-on-crime” lawmakers who slashed $3 billion in education from the state’s 2008 budget. Included among the Prop 6 supporters was — you guessed it — the CCA.
The CCA’s lobbying efforts, as well as those of publicly funded law-enforcement agents, wasn’t enough to convince Californians, as nearly 70 percent of voters opposed Prop 6. Yet similarly high numbers opted against Prop 5.
Maybe the cops’ Prop 6 push for more crime-fighting money and power were too transparent for voters. Interestingly, though, their appeals to public safety in opposing Prop 5 seemed to work. California voters were quite possibly unaware that, by maintaining strict criminal laws and closing off alternatives to incarceration, law-enforcement agencies maintained their strength.
The 1 percent solution?
From Niccolò Machiavelli to Rudy Giuliani, fear has been the foundation of ever-expanding political power (and, for some, job status and security). And it continues to drive the prison-industrial complex.
Just as the United States Department of Justice was able to pressure Congress to enact the infamous USA-Patriot Act (also see) in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, here in the Bay State, an appeal to fear (“protect the children”) prevailed in stampeding the legislature. In late July, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law “An Act Further Protecting Children,” a bill providing stricter mandatory-minimum sentences for sex offenders who target children.
The way this legislation was presented made opposition appear callous and irresponsible. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to keep child predators off the streets?
Yet tucked away in this bill are provisions that do far more than simply protect the young. The proposal enables prosecutors to obtain private records from Internet and telephone providers by issuing an “administrative subpoena.” Prosecutors, having only to assert that records are “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation,” were granted ever-expanding access into otherwise personal data. The telecoms, in turn, were granted blanket immunity from claims of privacy violation. There was no mass protest from the customers.
But at least one person did object. Newton’s Democratic state senator Cynthia Creem voiced skepticism in a July 29 Newton TAB op-ed. Mindful that the most egregious provisions of the Patriot Act have been used to target not just terrorists but journalists, activists, and Muslim charities, she wrote: “I cannot support this attack on privacy rights when less-invasive and equally effective means are available. Our liberties should never be sacrificed in the name of prosecutorial convenience.” A few other scattered voices in the State Senate echoed Creem. But perhaps Creem’s reference to “convenience” missed the point — prosecutorial power appears to have been the more likely goal.
When the bill was passed by the Massachusetts House and presented to the Senate, Coakley, having learned that other politicians were questioning the bill’s scope, lobbied hard so that no language would be changed (which would have required passage again through the House). With robust MDAA support, as well as the backing of key legislative leaders, 11 different role-call votes for amending provisions of the bill were voted down. Less than two weeks after this truncated debate, the bill became law. Experienced observers of the legislative process marveled at the ability of Coakley and her allies to forestall changes to the legislation.
The United States — “land of the free” — has five percent of the world’s population, but it also, thanks to the lobbyists and officiants behind the prison-industrial complex, shamefully holds 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. It has a higher rate of imprisonment than the planet’s most notorious despotisms. One in 100 Americans is in jail.
These citizens are not only unproductive, they cost the public $45 billion a year, according to a June report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. And yet they also keep a small army of officers and other law-enforcement support personnel on the job. The monumental taxpayer’s tab that would be unnecessary with saner criminal-justice laws is virtually incalculable.
It is long past the time to re-think how much credence we should give to those who claim to be experts in law enforcement, but who, in reality, have simply discovered a steady and ever-increasing source of job security.
Their First Amendment right to lobby for endless new criminal laws and ever-tougher prison sentences is indeed constitutionally protected, but this does not mean that these law-enforcement officials’ criminal “expertise” should endow them with a free pass from critical scrutiny. Legislators and the public need not sit by idly as their fellow citizens are unjustly arrested, prosecuted, and often incarcerated for increasingly lengthy periods of time as the law-enforcement industry’s wallet grows fat. The next time prison-industrial-complex adherents tell us we need tougher laws and sentences for our own good, we should point out precisely whose good is being served.
Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil-liberties lawyer and writer. Kyle Smeallie, former associate editor of the Boston College Heights, is Silverglate’s research assistant and paralegal. Silverglate’s next book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, is forthcoming next year from Encounter Books.