Lobbying

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.

Time to Stop Drinking the Privatization Kool-Aid

In 1990, there were 7,771 prisoners held in private prison facilities in the US.  By 2009, that number had jumped to 129,336, a 1664 percent increase.  Along the way, private prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry.  This growth was fueled, in part, by the “pitch” that privatizing prisons would save tax dollars. Banking on BondageBanking on Bondage As the ACLU documented in its new report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the private prison industry’s narrative is in need of serious revision.

Last spring, the myth of cost savings through prison privatization was shot down by the head of Texas prisons, Brad Livingston, who testified before the House Corrections Committee that non-salary operating costs of public and private facilities are almost identical (Texas House Committee on Corrections, 4/13/11, at 1:31:08).   The ACLU report also found that private prisons may fail to save tax payer money, and furthermore, in order to maximize profits, they are strongly incentivized to cut corners which can result in poorly trained employees, and affect the wellbeing of prisoners.

So, if private prisons aren’t cheaper, aren’t more efficient, and aren’t run in a better manner why do we have them?  A major reason, as the report documented, is that beginning in the 1990s the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and corporations to discuss public policy and draft model legislation, began to push legislation that would result in mass incarceration and promote private prisons.  Some of this legislation, such as “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws may sound familiar. During this time, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the leading private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  In addition to ALEC, the private prison industry employs an army of lobbyists throughout the country.  CCA and The GEO Group, Inc., the two largest private prison 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. 

Mass incarceration is the natural by-product of a powerful industry whose bottom line requires incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the impact. And, the private prison companies don’t try to hide their goals. For example, this is what GEO stated in its filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (The report shows that CCA had a similar statement in its SEC filing):

“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.”

This model is broken because it is based on incarceration instead of crime prevention. For-profit private prisons are not the answer to making our streets safer and our society more productive. Instead, we must focus on creating a system that is less is harmful to our pocketbooks, protects our safety, and respects basic human dignity.  Read the full ACLU report here.

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