Monday, March 17, 2008

Presumed Profitable - Private Justice a Public Scandal.

Viewing with alarm - ten years behind the curve.

America Behind Bars: Why Attempts at Prison Reform Keep Failing

By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted March 5, 2008.

In its 2005 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America laid out what's at stake for a prison industry facing reform:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities ... The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.
... Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release ... Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitors who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.

The reforms described by the rather alarmed-sounding CCA mirror those that Pew and other advocates herald as a way to curb the growing prison crisis -- and it appears that lawmakers are finally willing to hear them. "What we're seeing is state leaders around the country starting to call time out," said Pew researcher Susan K. Urahn during the Post's online chat. "We are seeing activity in several states where legislators from both parties are saying, 'We aren't getting our money's worth out of prisons.'" So, for example, "for the same amount of money, you could keep one inmate behind bars for an additional year, or you could provide treatment and intensive supervision for several others -- and cut the recidivism rate considerably." But who will provide treatment -- and how about those electric monitors? Like prison construction itself, prison "reform" will largely amount to trading in one set of services for another.

There's more...

Others continue to defend the sweeping policies that got us here in the first place. "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country," conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson told the Washington Post. Hardly unbiased criticism, given that Wilson was one of the intellectual engines behind the "broken windows" theory that helped get us into this mess. (And tell that to black or Latino families who experience the criminal justice system's harshest excesses -- from children growing up without their parents to parents paying crippling phone fees to reach their children. Or tell that to now-elderly prisoners living out their final days behind bars, whose threat to society is negligible and whose failing health makes them highly vulnerable -- and hugely expensive to care for.)

I often refer to the Republican theory of public policy as "The Bigger Hammer Approach." That is to say, if a problem exists, apply force until the problem is many thousands of finely distributed problems that must be dealt with by local authority or, of course provide an opportunity for "private enterprise."

Occasionally that may work, though I'll be damned if I can think of an example, but not when the problem is inherently toxic.

This approach, conflated with Regan Republican's mindless adoration of privatizing anything that isn't nailed down, and certainly anything that can be unbolted and shifted with a crane leads us to absurd situations, wherein reducing recidivism is the last thing on a prison administrator's mind.

We have to remember that while crime is harmful to individuals, it is also harmful to society as a whole. The peace and well-being of society is a Commons, one that it is, inarguably, the most fundamental duty of government to preserve - even at the expense of ideological purity.

We currently find ourselves with far too many people in jail, to the extent that it is symptomatic of a society at war with it's own people, rather than of any particular culture of meaningful lawlessness. The statistics speak for themselves; the overwhelming majority of persons in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses, often for life without parole.

On the other hand, kill someone and you might find yourself out on parole in as little as six years.
Especially if you happen to be white. Did I mention that the majority of persons in prison for all offenses are black or otherwise Non-White?

Well, such blatant contempt for the Equal Justice clause causes widespread disrespect for the law itself; it creates a situation where a large portion of the American people feel that the government is, in fact, at war with them. And with the rhetoric of The War on Drugs and the War on Crime, it's difficult to say "don't take it personally, it's just politics."

It is intensely personal and it's a particularly cynical and corrupt sort of political exploitation of people and their tolerance.

We have left the courts far to little discretion in sentencing and diversion, we treat drug addiction like a crime (and assume that everyone who uses opiates is a criminal unless they are writhing in agony at the moment of accusation ) and we are, bizarrely enough, willing to incarcerate someone for life at thirty grand per year, per bed, rather than five grand per bed per year for drug treatment. Even if they NEVER get clean and sober, even if they never leave, it's still a better deal for the taxpayers.

And you see, here's the thing people don't seem to understand: if I pay taxes to fund an institution, it's not entirely a private institution, is it? Indeed, it's doing what a public institution would. Perhaps it's cheaper, but unless Joe Taxpayer can look at the books, we don't know how they manage that, and we do know that the results are contrary to promise.

There's another point as well. Whether or not a fee for service goes to a government or private agency, if it's effectively mandatory, in order to do personal or public business, it is a tax. And as taxpayers, we have the right to expect a reasonable return on investment. When 1 in a hundred citizens are in jail - well, that's a huge blow, in lost earnings, in lost revenue and in human life. It's appalling. And appallingly stupid.

I think it no coincidice that it's a plan much loved by socially conservatives, who are willing to pay any price ( while, of course, not touching personal capital ) to ensure that their lifestyle and their comforts and their secure enclaves remain unbesmirched by productive citizens of middle to lower classes and, of course, of dusky hues and questionable politics.

But such arrogance and misrule on behalf of very few at the expense of the great majority and at the expense of the ruin of ten percent of the entire population causes anyone who cannot casually afford a cigarette boat out of pocket change to contemplate a brutal political calculus.

The wealthy argue that no progress would be possible without concentrations of capital - and indeed, that's an arguemnt with great and obvious merit. But the same concentrations of capital may be used as brutal weapons against progress. And for every Burt Rutan, for every Richard Branson, for every Dyson and Dean Kamen, there is at least one Peter Coors or Paris Hilton.

Capital concentrations are only one aspect of progress, and the web has proven it possible via the Dean and Paul Campaigns and in many other ways, to get individuals to pool small sums and make large, targeted impacts. It's also possible for the web to serve the same infrastructural and organizing purpose as large companies, governments and foundations, with greater efficiency, transparently and security.

The thing to remember here is that - and I pause at this leftist-sounding rhetoric, but it's obviously true in this case - the rich are indeed exploiting the working classes in order to create wealth. Which, historically, is ok, as long as it's done with some sense of reciprocity.

But it's clear they feel their grip slipping. Over the last two or three decades, even as the worship of wealth and greed and the lifestyles of the rich and famous has become an industry in itself, simple tools have expanded the ability for individuals of no particular means to build their own enterprises - everything from dotcoms to fast food chains to publishing empires. The actual cost of doing business has plummeted - and by the by, that's true both for "legitimate" and "criminal" enterprises alike.

It would behoove us, then, to concentrate on realigning our idea of "legitimate" and "criminal" with basic moral, constitutional and libertarian ideas of "right and wrong," the ones that relate to actual harm done to actual persons.

Or in other words, it's utterly bizarre that trafficking in pot is illegal when trafficking in oxycontin is not, if you have a patent or a license. Furthermore, even if pot WERE legal, it would be absurd to expect congress to create a protected market with price supports, so that medical marijuana users had to pay a premium for something they could grow in their back yard.

There are clear and obvious ethical problems with our drug and crime policies, and the thing about ethical problems is that "whatcha gonna do about it" is not a viable approach to dealing with it. Certainly, government has the power to enact laws, and people to enforce them - but in order to achieve any meaningful end that seems just to the majority of the citizenry, laws must have ethical intents and outcomes and they must be respected by the citizenry as being useful as well as well-intentioned.

Otherwise, the law will be recognized only in the breech, and if respected to any extent, via lip service at parole hearings.

And that, I would submit to you, is the present case - and a case that exactly to the taste of the prison industry.

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