Sunday, March 15, 2015

That's Snake Oil Being Held By The Man Behind The Curtain

This is a topic we shall return to periodically. Or, eschewing the imperial we, I shall return to the topic indefinitely, in no small part because someone or some group is getting fleeced. The Conservative Washington Free Beacon recently wrote

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, has joined the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime campaign, a conservative criminal justice reform initiative.

By signing onto Right on Crime’s statement of principles, Perry joins other notable conservatives such as Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and another likely candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016.

Right on Crime and the American Civil Liberties Union recently joined a constellation of conservative groups, as well as the Center for American Progress, to form the Coalition for Public Safety, an umbrella group aiming to reduce prison populations and reform sentencing.

Over the last two years, a growing number of conservative and liberal groups have begun working together to reform the criminal justice system and roll back many of the “tough on crime laws,” such as mandatory minimum sentences, that proliferated throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

The ACLU is more a civil liberties, than a liberal, group, and the Center for American Progress, whose excellent blog is included on the right side of this page, has been infatuated with Barack Obama and the Clintons for years. Still, they generally would be considered on the left.  Right On Crime is so named in part because its membership list is a veritable who's who of prominent conservatives not currently in office.

The organization's list of six principles is- at least at first glance- fairly innocuous, although cautioning against any policy which might "undermine economic freedom" should give pause. But the very first phrase of the first principle is at best cryptic, and more likely antithetical to any constructive effort to reform the criminal justice system. No. 1 reads

As with any government program, the criminal justice system must be transparent and include performance measures that hold it accountable for its results in protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing re-offending, collecting victim restitution and conserving taxpayers’ money.

Presumably, we on the left- or the center- are supposed to notice the interest in the public, crime rates, victims, and taxpayers and nod in agreement.   Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. We are to skip over the killer phrase "as with any government program." It's just a hunch, but one born of observation, that this is not a throw-away phrase for the signers who are charter members of the Committee for the 1% (not to be confused with the others, who surely would not be members of any committee for the 99%).

These guys and gals want the criminal justice system to be transparent and held accountable as long as it is a government program; when privatized, not so much.  And any change which does not considerably reduce the privatization of criminal justice is, at best, a sham.

Such privatization takes its most obvious form in detention and correctional facilities and perhaps most glaringly in the state of Louisiana, which incarcerates more residents per capita than does any other state.  In 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an eight-part series entitled "Louisiana Incarcerated." In one installment, Cindy Chang explained

More than half of the state's 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck.

Whether a sheriff uses the revenue to buy shotguns or whether LaSalle uses it to build a gleaming new headquarters, the result is the same. If you are sentenced to state time in Louisiana, odds are you will be placed in a local prison -- a low-budget, for-profit enterprise where you are likely to languish in your bunk, day after day, year after year, bored out of your skull with little chance to learn a trade or otherwise improve yourself. A coveted spot at a state prison like Angola, Hunt or Dixon is a long shot for anyone not convicted of a violent crime such as murder, rape or armed robbery.

Local prisons specialize in incarceration on the cheap. State prisons are built on huge acreage, offer an array of vocational classes and require able-bodied inmates to work. While the average daily price tag for an inmate at a state prison is $55 a day, local prisons only get $24.39 -- and try to wring a few extra dollars from that.

Yet these are the very inmates, convicted of minor crimes such as drug possession and writing bad checks, who will soon be back in society. While lifers at Angola learn welding, plumbing and auto mechanics, 11,000 of the 15,000 people released from Louisiana prisons each year come out of local facilities and have had no such opportunities.

And there is no reason for private facilities to give to prisoners opportunities which would enable those inmates to adjust more effectively outside the prison walls. Do that enough and the likelihood of crime will be reduced and those beds may remain unoccupied (a 9/14 report on privatization in California, below).

That is also why the right, with support from the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Manhattan Institute will support only so much reform as does not cut into corporate profit.  (Ralph Reed is the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. By freedom, Reed always has meant the freedom of corporations to rip off enough people as possible. By faith, he meant having faith in the profit which ensues. Ask Jack Abramoff,  under Sodium Pentothol.)

As Charles Pierce has noted

This is what happens when you create an alien entity out of "the government," insist that The Market does everything better, and abandon the notion of a political commonwealth in favor of the performance ethic of the financial-services sector. This is what happens when both parties fetishize The Deficit and talk idiotically about how the government should "tighten its belt the way you and your family have to do it." For-profit prisons- like for-profit colleges, for-profit high schools and for-profit almost everything else- are comically, nightmarishly bad ideas, dedicated for profit, and not to public service,which are not the same thing, no matter how much the Republicans would like you to believe that they are.

The prison-industrial complex is ripe for rehabilitation. But if progressives believe conservatives will join in an effort to upend its most destructive elements, they are sorely mistaken. For some on the right, the system must be reformed so there is greater profit at the expense of offenders, victims, and the public.

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