Are private prison companies the new peonage system designed to keep millions behind bars to keep their profits up?
ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC says that corporations do not vote on the board.) They fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. It might be right. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.
In 2002, American Radio Works aired a report on ALEC, CCA, and crime laws. The report notes that the Public Safety and Elections Task Force, of which CCA is a member:
. . . writes the group’s “model” bills on crime and punishment. Until recently, a CCA official even co-chaired the task force. For years, ALEC’s criminal justice committee has promoted state laws letting private prison companies operate. And at least since the early 1990s, it has pushed a tough-on-crime agenda. ALEC officials say proudly that lawmakers on the group’s crime task force led the drive for more incarceration in the states — “and really took the forefront in promoting those ideals and then taking them into their states and talking to their colleagues and getting their colleagues to understand that if, you know, we want to reduce crime we have to get these guys off the streets,” says ALEC staffer and Criminal Justice Task Force director Andrew LeFevre.
Among ALEC’s model bills: mandatory minimum sentences; Three Strikes laws, giving repeat offenders 25 years to life in prison; and “truth-in-sentencing,” which requires inmates to serve most or all of their time without a chance for parole. ALEC didn’t invent any of these ideas but has played a pivotal role in making them law in the states, says Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “By ALEC’s own admission in its 1995 Model Legislation Scorecard, they were very successful. They had introduced 199 bills [that year]. The Truth-in-Sentencing Act had become law in 25 states, so that right there is fairly significant.”
By the late 1990s, about forty states had passed versions of truth-in sentencing similar to ALEC’s model bill. Because of truth-in-sentencing and other tough sentencing measures, state prison populations grew by half a million inmates in the 1990s even while crime rates fell dramatically.
The result: more demand for private prison companies like CCA
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, is the largest for-profit prison corporation in the U.S. CCA runs over 60 prisons in about 20 U.S. states plus Washington, DC. CCA has contracts with all three federal corrections agencies (Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), nearly half of all states and more than a dozen local municipalities. It is the fifth-largest corrections system in the U.S., with only the federal government and three states having larger prison systems. The company trades on the New York Stock Exchange with the symbol CXW. In 2006, revenue was $1.3 billion with profits of $105 million.
With 1 in 100 American adults behind bars, falling crime rates and a cash-strapped economy, the United States would seem ripe for the kinds of national reforms that might keep people out of prison. Recent polls have shown that even our law-and-order-minded citizenry would rather see penalties eased for certain criminals than pay more money to keep them locked up.
A smattering of states, blue and red alike, have taken tentative steps to reduce their prison populations. Yet overall, the incarceration rate remains flat even as crime levels decrease and budget deficits grow. And on the federal level, the numbers of prisoners just keep growing; Congress, meanwhile, can’t even manage to pass a bill to study criminal justice reforms, much less make them.
Read the whole story: Aljazeera