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Private prisons are only one part of our mass incarceration problem

August 08, 2019
Modest approaches only targeting prison privatization aren't enough to end prison abuses or mass incarceration. Bold ideas and significant resources are necessary to dismantle mass incarceration and overcriminalization.

This commentary was originally published in the Miami Herald.

On the 2020 presidential campaign trail, calls for criminal-justice reform have become a consistent talking point — and for good reason: The United States incarcerates more people than any country on Earth.

Ending mass incarceration is a rallying cry of civil-rights organizations, faith institutions, legal groups, academics and people directly affected by the system. Increasingly, Democratic candidates have responded to this growing consensus by promising to end private prison contracting as a key feature of their criminal justice reform platforms.

As Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted recently, “One of my first acts of business as president will be to begin phasing out detention centers and private prisons.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s single criminal-justice policy plan focuses on ending prison privatization. She calls the relationship between Washington and the “corporations profiting off of inhumane detention and incarceration policies” corrupt.

Profit motives should have no place in decisions about incarceration, and studies have found disturbing cases of abuse, cost-cutting at the expense of safety and security and no appreciable evidence of savings produced by the industry. But ending prison privatization will not end prison abuses or mass incarceration.

Indeed, just 8 percent of people imprisoned in the United States are housed in private prisons, and 21 states don’t currently incarcerate anyone in private facilities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. At the federal level, where reliance on private prisons is among the most significant, the population housed in these facilities declined 19 percent between 2016 and 2017.

The growth of private prisons over the past four decades is a result of corporations capitalizing on policies that over-criminalized poor communities and people of color, lengthened sentences and abolished parole. This tough-on-crime trend began before CoreCivic or GEO Group became the private prison giants that they are today. Indeed, presidential candidates of the 1980s and 1990s attempted to outflank one another as the most punitive in order to win over voters.

The harsh policies that resulted from this era are still with us today and deserve closer attention from candidates seeking to actually have an effect on mass incarceration. For instance, the number of people sentenced to life imprisonment has reached historic levels, quadrupling in size since 1984, even as crime rates have fallen over the past decades. As of 2016, 200,000 people — one out of every seven people imprisoned — was serving a life sentence, a figure greater than the entire prison population in 1970.

Bipartisan consensus-supporting sentencing reform and enhanced re-entry programming generally excludes people convicted of violent offenses, despite evidence that long sentences have little deterrent effect on crime since deterrence is a function of the certainty of punishment, not its severity.

Moreover, because people age out of criminal behavior and the likelihood of recidivism is low past age 50 regardless of the type of offense, ending life sentences has practical benefits for public safety through the reinvestment of public resources used to lock up people who are elderly and infirm. A better crime prevention strategy would fund programs that aid at-risk youth, improve schools and expand access to care for substance-use disorders, mental illness and general health.

Sen. Cory Booker may be the first presidential contender to confront these more challenging issues with his introduction of the Second Look Act in July. The bill would allow people in federal prison with long sentences to petition a federal judge for a sentence reduction after 10 years. To be eligible for a reduction the court must find that: The individual is not a danger to safety in the community; has demonstrated readiness for re-entry; and the interests of justice warrant a sentence modification. Nearly half of the federal prison population could be eligible to apply.

Bold ideas and significant resources are necessary to reduce substantially the prison population and dismantle mass incarceration and overcriminalization. Presidents can play an important role in influencing the public debate on crime and punishment that guides changes at the federal level but also affects state and local policy decisions.

For candidates who seek to highlight their criminal-justice reform bona fides, modest approaches that target only private prisons are not enough.

Kara Gotsch is the director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice research and advocacy organization.

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