Big Stories of 2011 - #3 - ALEC and Private Prison Lobbying Exposed

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top five private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   Our #3 story is the increased exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the role of private prison lobbyists in influencing legislation.

Earlier this year, The Nation and The Center for Media and Democracy released ALEC Exposed.  ALEC Exposed brought to light the actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that unites corporations with state legislators to “discuss” public policy and draft model legislation.  One of the most concerning areas of this public/private partnership is in the realm of criminal justice and prisons.  In fact, criminal injustice may be a more appropriate phrase.  Thanks to ALEC, the for-profit prison industry has a lot to be thankful for during this holiday season.

As The Nation reported, “ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, ‘three strikes’ laws, and ‘truth in sentencing’ laws.”  According to the proponents, these laws are designed to reduce crime.  In reality, as California saw first hand, instead of reducing recidivism these laws lead to severe overcrowding.  In the end, public safety is undermined (at the expense of taxpayers) while the for-profit prison industry makes out like a bandit.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  NPR reported last year that through its membership in ALEC, CCA was actually able to help draft model anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona's noxious SB 1070.   

Unfortunately, the negative influence of the for-profit prison industry is not limited to ALEC.  As the ACLU reported, CCA and The Geo Group, Inc. have engaged in a multi-state lobbying effort to fight smart on crime reforms.  These two corporations hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011.  Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level.  To understand their need for this army of lobbyists you do not need to read any further than Geo’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings (CCA’s is similar):

“Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

 The U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and the private prison industry clearly wants to make sure it stays that way. While taxpayer and civil rights advocates have been working to reform archaic and ineffective criminal justice laws, working to ensure that our laws reflect current research on effective ways to reduce crime and protect human rights, for-profit prison corporations are headed in the opposite direction.  To these corporations, societal impact and public safety don’t matter.  The only thing that is relevant is maximizing the bottom line.

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