Matthew T. Mangino
March 13, 2015
As prisons continue to grow and states struggle to pay the costs, the disastrous consequences of the prison industrial complex have come into focus.
In 1998, Eric Schlosser, in an Atlantic Monthly article, defined the prison industrial complex as “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.”
The prison industrial complex has fueled the increasing number of Americans in state and federal prisons over the past three decades. Although the rate of growth has slowed, the problem is clearly evident in 17 states where the prison population is now higher than the capacity of the facilities designed to hold them, reported The Washington Post.
The number of persons in local jails declined in 2013 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The news was not all good: The state prison population grew by more than 4,000.
The future looks bleak as well. According to the Justice Policy Institute, one in every 15 Americans born in 2001 is expected to serve at least a year in prison during their lifetime. The news is equally bleak on the federal level. The Bureau of Prisons is more than 30 percent over capacity, and the cost of federal prisons has increased by more than 1,100 percent.
A bipartisan group of senators has introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 to modernize federal drug sentencing policies by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementation of the act would save taxpayers approximately $3 billion in corrections costs over 10 years.
In response, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lamented what he called the leniency industrial complex. He suggested the Smarter Sentencing Act is a weak attempt to defend the indefensible.
Supporters of the Act “gloss over the fact that even if an offender was not violent in a particular case, he may have committed a prior violent offense that would make him in fact violent … many drug-related crimes occur through force or the threat of force or are conducted by people in a criminal enterprise that relies on violence.”
On the state level, efforts are ongoing to address prison overcrowding. In 2010, the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance launched the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, with funding appropriated by Congress. The JRI State Assessment Report, released by the Urban Institute in January 2014, showed that 17 JRI states are making steady progress toward reducing correctional spending and reinvesting in recidivism-reduction strategies. Although projected savings vary, the report estimates that savings could amount to as much as $4.7 billion over a 10-year period.
A group studying overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons has found that arrests are declining and sentences are getting shorter. But Alabama’s prisons remain at nearly double their designed capacity.
The Council of State Governments told The Montgomery Advertiser that the average length of an inmate’s prison term before parole release has increased from 30 months in 2009 to 43 months in 2014. The number of eligible inmates being released has also fallen from about 42 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2013.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the bold step of taking on the prison industrial complex during his January state of the state address.
“An incarceration program is not an employment program,” Cuomo said. “Don’t put other people in prison in order to give some people jobs.”
While Sen. Grassley raises the specter of the leniency industrial complex, he ignores the pervasive abuse brought on by the prison industrial complex. Whole families and entire communities are devastated when the coercive influence of government is used for the gain of a select few.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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