Guest Columnist

Banking on bondage: Americans can do better

A cell at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A cell at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Following a 35-year mass-jailing binge that left this nation stained, America is seeing a bipartisan push toward enlightenment.

In Congress, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is a key leader. The idea behind the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is to ease up on non-violent, small-time offenders while staying tough on violent career criminals.

It’s about time. With roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States confines about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Politicians’ addiction to locking up certain low-level drug offenders may have yielded ballot-box bonanzas, but consider the price — for taxpayers as well as convicts and their loved ones.

Reform-minded lawmakers should get started by scrubbing away the stain of privately run federal prisons. Though housing just 8 percent of the total federal and state prison population, for-profit operations represent all that’s wrong with corrections in this country: understaffing and inmate crowding, punishment pre-empting rehabilitation, more danger for prisoners and guards, government-authorized quotas for keeping prison beds filled. And for-profit prisons aren’t cheaper to run.

It’s all about commodities. The more people (commodities) locked up, the better it is for private-prison contractors and their stockholders. Immigrants without papers represent a huge percentage of detainees. It was illegal immigration — not the war on drugs — that got the private prisons industry up and running in the early 1980s.

I like to think most Americans favor less draconian corrections.

The U.S. Department of Justice was on the right track two years ago. Then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a blistering report on privately run prisons and announced a phasing out of federal contracts for their services. The Obama administration hoped states would follow. To its credit, Iowa, along with New York and Illinois, prohibits contracting for private-prison operations. All other states allow it, with 28 participating.

Yates’ announcement was pure poison for the private-prison industry. Shares tanked. But fortunes rebounded the day after Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Shares in the largest company, CoreCivic of Nashville, Tenn., saw a 60 percent jump.

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No wonder. Better times lay ahead. In February 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the scrapping of privately run federal prisons. That might seem part of the new president’s drive to wipe out all traces of Barack Obama. But the ever-punitive Sessions also loathes the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which received Judiciary Committee approval, 16-5. Equally opposed is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has shown no inclination to put the legislation in play. And for every senator who has signed on to prison sentencing reform, there must be two embracing prison industry lobbying. A top career recipient is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who has longtime ties to GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., second largest operator of for-profit prisons.

Opposition to prison reform also abounds in the House of Representatives.

As for the for-profit prison industry, why not let CoreCivic’s 2014 annual report present its case:

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. … Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.”

“Leniency” … “decriminalization” … “early release.” The horror! The horror!

Imagine how that looks from Germany and the Netherlands. They rely largely on alternatives to imprisonment — fines, probation, community service — and impose much shorter sentences when the only alternative is incarceration.

Banking on bondage. It ill befits a nation once called freedom’s beacon.

• Jerry Elsea is retired after 40 years with The Gazette.

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