Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prisons-for-Profit Undermine Everyone’s Rights, Not “Just” Those of the Accused

[Note: This blog is cross-posted at Blue Commonwealth]

Senator James Webb has put prison and related reforms on the front burner. And not a moment too soon. Jim deserves considerable credit for taking this complex set of issues on, when most pols continue to scramble to “prove” they are tougher on supposed criminals than the next guy. If they cared half as much about the innocent, I would be more impressed. But even for the guilty, the system is often too harsh. As Webb himself points out, wE have 5 % of the worlds population, but 25% of its inmates. Something is clearly amiss.

Certainly, the throw-away-the-key approach to sentencing is part of the problem. It’s of doubtful Constitutionality as well. The legislative branch is not supposed to tie the hands of the judiciary and make it meaningless. Over-sentencing for small-time drug offenses lands far too many in hard time without treatment. The lucky ones get treatment—and hope of actually breaking out of the recidivism cycle.

But most of all is this: The United States’ increased use of prisons for profit despoil the Constitution, turn the government into the worst kind of industry colluders, and turns the government against its own citizens to assist corporation who profit from imprisonment of more and more Americans.

Now comes an AP story here and here to illustrate this point better than I ever could. It seems that judges in Pennsylvania stand accused of jailing kids for cash. The kids get a minimalist “hearing,” no rights whatsoever, and summarily are sent off to juvenile detention. The judge(s) and the prison company smile all the way to the bank.

Two judges in particular have pocketed millions to incarcerate America’s children in PA Child Care LLC ad a sister company , Western PA Child Care, LLC, both operators of juvenile detention prisons. 2.6 million dollars in fact. Thousands of kids lives are ruined forever by the relentless profit motive elevated over human decency and morality. One of the “judges” had a lock-up rate 2.5 times the national average.

In this case, there out to be a law. There is a law against what the two judges did. They are both expected to plead guilty to fraud. That is not enough. But more to the point, there ought to be another law—against prisons and juvenile detention centers for profit. It guarantees that people will be lawlessly rounded up for little reason except to enrich the despicable. Some things should never be privatized. And prisons are one class of them.

The next time you thank Sen. Webb for his courageous work, you might also mention your concern about this specific problem. It’s one more crucial piece of reform that cannot happen a moment too soon.