« I Am A Koufax Award Finalist! | Main | Mindsight »

January 26, 2004

The Lucrative Prison Lobby

TalkLeft rightly called this article about the prison business the "most depressing article they've read all week." The article also discussed "prison towns," which "rely on the corrections system to keep their economies afloat. An example is "Fremont County, Colo., where the No. 1 employer is the Colorado Department of Corrections, with nine prisons, and No. 2 is the Federal Bureau of Prisons with four. Towns that once might have hesitated about bringing a prison to town now rush to put together incentive packages. Abilene, Tex., offered the state incentives worth more than $4 million to get a prison. The package included a 316-acre site and 1,100 acres of farmland adjacent to the facility."

A powerful lobby has grown up around the prison system that will fight hard to protect the status quo. There are some positive signs, as set forth in Vincent Schiraldi's Nov. 30 article in the Outlook section. Fiscal pressures may indeed slow the growth of the vast U.S. prison system. But reversing the trend of the past quarter-century is another matter.

Major companies such as Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and Corrections Corp. of America employ sophisticated lobbyists to protect and expand their market share. The law enforcement technology industry, which produces high-tech items such as the latest stab-proof vests, helmets, stun guns, shields, batons and chemical agents, does more than a billion dollars a year in business.

With 2.2 million people engaged in catching criminals and putting and keeping them behind bars, "corrections" has become one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, employing more people than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart, the three biggest corporate employers in the country. Correctional officers have developed powerful labor unions. And most politicians, whether at the local, state or national level, remain acutely aware that allowing themselves to be portrayed as "soft on crime" is the quickest route to electoral defeat.

The U. S. prison and jail population had quadrupled in size to more than 2 million since 1980, yet national crime rates for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have dropped significantly for the past ten years. Theft and household burglary rates have been dropping since the late 1970s. Violent crime rates rose between the late 1970s through 1981 and between 1986 through 1993. They have dropped significantly since 1993. Despite the dropping crime rates, prisons continue to be built and the prison population continues to rise.

A paragraph at the end of the article caught my attention: "Last year Robert Presley, secretary of California's correctional agency, noted that after several years of decline, crime rates were rising again and his state's prison population had resumed its growth. Maximum-security inmates made up the fastest-growing segment. Despite the building boom of the previous 20 years, prisons were at an average of 191 percent of capacity. This hardly sounds like a recipe for a falling prison population."

The reason California's prison population has resumed its growth is not because of an increase in crime rates. It is due to restructuring of laws that permit more people to land in jail. One example is California's "Three Strikes" law. Washington state, Georgia, and Michigan have similar laws. The disparity between crime trends and incarceration rates reminded me of bogus statistics about the alleged rise in juvenile crime, delinquency, and drug use that has supposedly been on the rise due to the increase in single and divorced mother homes. In fact, those criminal trends have been dropping. Those bogus statistics exist only to denigrate mothers who raise their children without the presence of a father in the household. They also scapegoat youth, especially poor young black men.

While reading this article, I remembered the study that found that there was not an increase in crimes committed by young people, even though many more juveniles have ended up in jail now than twenty years ago. A 2000 Justice Department study about juvenile incarceration rates found that the change was due to prosecutors and judges having more options in trying juveniles as adults. CNN reported that "[t]he rise in youth incarceration at adult state prisons is blamed partly on an increasing number of state laws that remove the legal status youths have as minors, researchers say. The crackdown, fueled in part by a decade of high-profile school violence, has placed children as young as 11 on trial in criminal courts. "Many states have increased the number of provisions that allow juveniles to be handled in the adult system," said report author Kevin J. Strom."

Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States (2000) also found that "70.7 percent of arrestees in 2002 were white, 26.9 percent were black, and the remainder were of other races." Despite the majority of arrestees being white, most State and Federal inmates are black, primarily black males under the age of 40.

"Fatherlessness" statistics are used by neo-conservative ideologues and politicians to fuel welfare reform programs. Like the prison system lobby, welfare reform programs have created cottage industries that target the poor. Practices such as mandatory DNA testing and the requirement that single mothers identify biological fathers in order to receive assistance enable the states to replenish their welfare coffers on the backs of the poor rather than help the poor get on their feet.

There is even a lucrative connection between the prison system lobby and the welfare reform lobby: some welfare reform initiatives fund programs that encourage contact between incarcerated fathers and their children. Faith-based initiatives also benefit from the connections between the fatherhood, welfare reform, and prison system lobbies.

Posted on January 26, 2004 at 09:27 AM | Permalink


When of my functions when I was in law enforcement was forwarding our crime statistics to the state for inclusion in the Federal reports.

In reading the various journals I came to the same conclusion as experts in the field that the single most important predictor of the crime rate was the number of males between the ages of 15 and 45. If you compare numbers of crimes and that population you can make an excellent forecast of the trend.

The 'Boomers' hit 15 in 1961 and 45 in 1991. The children of the 'Boomers' would provide another spike, but all you have to do is look at the census.

Posted by: Bryan at Jan 26, 2004 6:39:19 PM

Thanks for the fascinating information, Bryan. I'm at the tail end of the Boomer category (I believe I'm more of a Tweenie than a Boomer, but I may be wrong.) My son is 14. It's time for the crime rates to rise again according to the Boomer prediction, if they haven't risen already. I vaguely remember reading about a recent bump in some crime rates, although overall crime rates remain low.

Posted by: Trish Wilson at Jan 28, 2004 10:12:55 AM

On 1/26/2004 you state "The U. S. prison and jail population had quadrupled in size to more than 2 million since 1980, yet national crime rates for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have dropped significantly for the past ten years." If there exists a correlation between the two facts, then it can be interpreted to mean that the system is succeeding in crime reduction; the criminals who would have kept the rate of rape, robbery and aggravated assault at a constant level are instead in prison, ubable to commit the crimes, hence the rate has dropped.

Posted by: Mark at Apr 14, 2004 10:51:06 PM

...now for something completely different.

Anyone else see the economist who wrote a book called Freakenomics who was on the Daily Show a week or so ago? He made a very interesting point on this topic.

Roe v. Wade came into effect in the early 70's. By the early 90's, we were seeing a decrease in crime rates. The author was doing regression analysis between the crime rate and various factors.

If you think about it, there was what we would call today a Red State-Blue State split on abortion after Roe v Wade. Some states saw a large increase in abortions after Roe v Wade, other states saw almost no change in abortion rates after Roe v Wade.

Apparently (and I haven't read the book, just seen an interview with the author), when they ran the regression analysis of the abortion rates in various states against the crime rates in those states, they got a strong correlation. Stronger than the correlation to other factors like incarceration rates.

It makes sense in some ways. Essentially what that means is lower rates of "unwanted" children. If you think of what life must be like when you're raised in a home where your parents always treat you as if you were a mistake, you start to realize why there might indeed be a correlation between fewer "unwanted" children and a lower crime rate.

Posted by: freak at May 5, 2005 11:02:23 AM