The New York Times has published a series of very disturbing reports on the privatization of prisons, with a particular focus on New Jersey where a company with close ties to Governor Chris Christie – Christie was a lobbyist for Community Education – has resulted in an abnormally large number of escapees.
That’s because violent offenders have been placed in the company’s half-way houses, as New Jersey struggles to find low-cost ways to manage its extensive prison population.
The problem is two-fold. First, in the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime politicians came to power in both political parties and began drafting harsher penalties for even non-violent crimes, including three-strikes laws such as North Carolina’s Habitual Offender laws that impose long-term prison sentences for people convicted of even multiple low-level felonies.
In addition, more and more activity has become criminalized, states and the federal government have imposed even tough punishments for crimes that have traditionally resulted in probation. For instance, this past year, North Carolina created a new DWI sentencing level that imposes up to three-years (longer than many low-level felonies) for people convicted of a Driving While Impaired offense that includes three or more grossly aggravating factors.
Second, as states have suffered budget constraints since 2007’s financial crisis, they have had to look at everything within the state budget in order to find savings. (In the past, police, courts, and prisons were generally off-limits, and even in tough economic circumstances, states would avoid cuts in these ares.)
The illusory promise of savings has encouraged state governments to look at prison privatization – really prison contracting – encouraged by organizations like The Reason Foundation, a free-market organization based in Los Angeles.
In reality, the creation of a semi-private, but mostly private secondary industry that relies upon government contracts for its livelihood creates yet another lobbying group with deep pockets that seeks to encourage tough-on-crime policies that create streams of income. This has been true of the California prison guards union which is the primary backer in California of tough-on-crime measures such as three-strikes, and the primary opponent of drug decriminalization and harm-reduction proposals that seek to reduce prison populations.