A good friend of mine recently posted this comment and a link on her Facebook timeline:

As a California resident, I have been woefully ignorant of the fact that over the years we have begun turning our prisoners over to for-profit prisons, and that there even are for-profit prisons throughout the U.S.A. I realize it’s been going on for quite some time now. It seems just completely morally wrong to me. Can someone explain to me how for-profit prisons, companies that benefit financially if there are more criminals incarcerated, is a good idea for our society? What does this do for the ideas of rehabilitation or addressing root problems? I really am at a loss on this one. How did we get here? …

The Unites States has about 6% of the world’s population and about 25% of the world’s prisoners.  The median incarceration rate among all countries is about 125 prisoners per 100,000 population.  In the U.S., the rate is 743 per 100,000 – by far the highest rate in the world.  (For comparison sake, England is 153 to 100,000 and Japan is 63 per 100,000.)

As Senator James Webb (D., Va.) commented, “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S. or we are doing something dramatically wrong in how we approach criminal justice.”

There are many causes of this extremely high rate of incarceration.  The War on Drugs is one.  Starting in the 1980s, Congress passed laws that impose mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses, with states passing similarly “tough on crime” laws (I put this name in quotes, because the laws are they are much tougher on criminals than they are on crime itself).  The War on Drugs would have been better fought by funneling money into addiction treatment instead of prisons.

Another cause has been “Three Strikes” laws that were designed to permanently remove violent felons, but have swept up non-violent offenders in the process.  (And I’m not convinced that life without parole is a good idea for even the most violent offenders.)

The reality is that mass incarceration is a massive waste of taxpayer money:  it costs an enormous amount and it doesn’t make anyone safer.  And for years now, private companies have had a stake in the Prison Industrial Complex – and that stake is growing.  In my response to my friend’s disturbing realization, I wrote:

The problem with privatization is that corporations have one function and one function only:  to make money for their owners/shareholders.  There are some things that must be done in our society that need to be done for other reasons, and so we, together, pool our resources to do them (we pay taxes and get them done) for the benefit of all of us.

The goal of prisons should never be to make money. It could be to punish (though I’m not too happy with this purpose) or to rehabilitate or to protect society from criminal behavior — but never to make money.

Political liberals have, for years, decried a system that prefers to send people to prison instead of educating them and treating addiction.

The good news in all this is that some conservatives (like Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Grover Norquist) are among the supporters of the conservative advocacy group “Right on Crime,” which seeks to expand parole and probation programs and improve drug treatment and reentry programs for prisoners – all of which are more effective and less expensive than incarceration.

We may actually be moving toward a bipartisan approach to comprehensive reform.

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