Profiting From Criminal Justice

private prisonBeing a far right-wing person I have always been very pro law & order and believe that those who violate our laws should pay the consequences.  More often than not I have found myself thinking that our criminal justice system is not harsh enough.  But, it is the system we have and I would not trade it for any other in the world.  One of the cornerstones of our system is supposed to be the impartiality of the justice that is dispensed.  Without impartiality, can the punishments meted out still be considered just?  Sometimes, no.

The impartiality of the justice system is supposed to begin on the street with law enforcement personnel.  When their motives for enforcing the law become tainted by profit, anything that happens to the accused after that should be immediately suspect.  Case in point.  Here in Oklahoma, Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks signed a contract with Desert Snow LLC, a Guthrie Oklahoma based company, to do training with the DA’s task force.  The task force did roadside stops on a 21 mile stretch of Interstate 40 and seized drugs and also money, even seizing cash when no drugs were found and no arrest was made, simply because a canine alerted on the cash. Highway robbery.  Desert Snow, the company doing the training, was given 25 percent of funds seized on training days and 10 percent of funds seized on days when no trainer was present.  So far in 2013 more than $1 million in cash has been seized.  The task force drew the attention of a Caddo County judge after the owner of Desert Snow conducted a traffic stop of a pregnant woman all on his own, with no state-certified law enforcement officer present.  Mr. Hicks has currently suspended the program, dismissed all charges resulting from the stops and returned some seized money. He has said he believes he has done nothing wrong and has halted any activity on the highway pending his review.  But he did not say the program was cancelled.  So be careful when driving through Caddo County.  You just might be stopped by a private citizen with a contract who will take the money out of your wallet with the blessings of the District Attorney.

Forfeiture laws have become a popular revenue source for law enforcement personnel and DA offices.  David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute wrote a piece for The Journal Record that sums it up.

In a time of tight public resources, forfeiture has served as a lucrative funding stream for DA offices and police departments, paying for staff salaries, employee bonuses, sophisticated surveillance equipment, and more. In a report that assesses state civil forfeiture laws, the Institute for Justice gave Oklahoma a D-, noting that state statutes give law enforcement significant financial incentives to seize property. Oklahoma collects more than $10 million annually from forfeiture programs, according to this report.

Advocates for reform call for doing away with civil asset forfeiture completely, and instead allowing for property to be forfeited only after someone has been tried and convicted in a court of law. If the practice is to remain, the system’s current profit incentive can be restrained by requiring that funds be placed in a neutral account and not dedicated to the very law enforcement agencies that seize the assets in the first place. These changes, however, would require finding other revenue to pay for DA offices and policing – a very tall order in these times of never-ending budget scarcity.

The courtroom is also not above putting profit over justice, especially when private prisons are involved.  In Pennsylvania, Judge Mark Ciavarella was just sentenced to 28 years in prison for racketeering.  He and another judge had conspired with the owner of privately run youth centers to sentence youthful offenders to months, and sometimes years behind bars for small offenses.  He once sentenced a teen to three months in jail for making a MySpace page that mocked her school’s assistant principal.  A federal investigation revealed he and Judge Michael Conahan had received more than $2.6 million from the owner of the youth centers in exchange for making sure they centers were always full.  Once he was convicted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out 4,000 convictions issued by the judges.  Does this kind of judicial corruption occur in other states that have private prisons? 

Private prisons are where they big money is made in criminal justice.  They are, of course, a business and businesses are in it to make a profit.  It certainly is in the best interests of the private prisons to make sure all the beds are filled.  No prisoners, no income.  Here in Oklahoma the incarceration rate is among the highest in the nation with around 26,000 people behind bars.  Spending on corrections is up 41 percent in the last decade.  Last year the Department of Corrections received $460 million, which is the third largest expenditure in the state budget behind education and the Department of Human Services.  Oklahoma spent $73 million on private prison contracts last year.

In 2012 the Oklahoma Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).  JRI is a plan also used in other states with the goal of reducing nonviolent inmate populations, enhancing enforcement, reducing crime and punishing some nonviolent criminals in other ways besides incarceration.  The plan has been hugely successful in North Carolina, Texas and fourteen other states. JRI has resulted in a drop in corrections costs for these states, reduced crime and the closing of unneeded prisons.  After funding JRI the first year the Oklahoma legislature decided to let the funding lapse and the program wither.  Consequently, Oklahoma’s inmate populate grew by 800 in the last year.  Why the change?  Why adopt a program that has proven successful in other states, only to let it die for lack of funding?  Earlier this year the leaders of a group working to implement the JRI abruptly resigned and pointed fingers at Governor Fallin, who they said is not serious about following through with the law she signed.

The Oklahoma News Report has a story (video below) revealing that the former Director of the Department of Corrections, Justin Jones, resigned due in part to reluctance to use private prisons to ease overcrowding.  He was in disagreement with state leaders on the use of private prisons.  Jones said, “You know, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it ethically and morally right for shareholders to make a profit off of incarceration of our fellow citizens.”  Sean Wallace, Executive Director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals (correctional workers union) said, “This year, through the Governor, I think we’re successful in getting rid of Justin Jones. And I would expect now to get a director directly from private prisons. In our minds it’s just which company is going to win. We have two private prison companies, CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group.  You know, which one is going to win the fight to be in control of the Department of Corrections.” Wallace further told the Tulsa World, “This is all about campaign money from private prison lobbyists.  The agency is purposely being run into the ground so that private prisons actually appear to be of value to the state.” 

 

 

Also in the Oklahoma News Report story is Oklahoma State Senator Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.  Jolley says in the video, “This state has made a conscious policy decision that we like to lock up bad guys and we want to put them away for a very long time.  If there’s one thing I think everyone is in agreement on is that our prison populations are going to continue to grow.”  It’s clear in the video that Senator Jolley is a strong proponent of using private prisons.  What’s also clear is that last year, lobbyists for CCA and the Geo Group gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Oklahoma politicians. Since 2004, lobbyists, private prison and halfway house employees have given $375,425 to 165 elected officials and candidates in Oklahoma.  In 2012 Jolley received $2,750 from four different people who are registered with the state as lobbyists for private prison corporations.  Private prisons are big, big business.  The two main private prison corporations with facilities in Oklahoma are the aforementioned Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America.  Their combined revenues for the last fiscal year for which I could find data, 2010, was $2.945 billion. 

 

geocca

The influence that private prisons has on corrections in Oklahoma goes back several years.  Mike Connelly is the former head of research for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and is now a partner in a corrections and sentencing consulting firm.  He told the Tulsa World that “private prisons have been aggressive in Oklahoma from the beginning.”  He also said that if a state gets too reliant on private prisons, the for-profit companies have an advantage and can set occupancy and prices.  They also don’t have an incentive to rehabilitate offenders so they can be released early.

In fact, their bottom line being profit has caused correctional trouble in other states.  For example, in Idaho, a prison run by CCA was severely understaffed and it was claimed that the gangs were essentially running the inside of the prison.  Guards were accused of consulting with gang leaders before making bed assignments and fights were so prevalent that the prison had the nickname ‘Gladiator School.’  After a lawsuit was brought to force staffing at acceptable levels, CCA agreed to make changes but just last week was found in contempt of federal court for never complying with the conditions of the agreement.  Idaho is dropping the CCA contract and seeking another company to run the prison.  Texas is closing two CCA prisons, one being the site of multiple high-profile prisoner deaths, including a baby girl allegedly born in a toilet after the staff ignored the mother’s request for medical assistance.  Mississippi is not renewing CCA’s contract after multiple riots at one of their facilities.  The Geo Group has also had problems, being accused by state and federal regulators of padding their profits by cutting worker wages, skimping on inmate health care and ignoring safety and sanitation.  It’s all about profit.

Just last month a negligence lawsuit was filed in Tulsa District Court on behalf of 20 women who made allegations against Oklahoma City-based Avalon Correctional Services.  The suit alleges that staff at Turley Residential Center “did not follow the procedures for operating the work-release program and further directed women to places of employment with supervisors who utilized their positions of authority to sexually exploit the women.” Avalon is paid to house up to 180 female offenders at Turley at a cost to the state of $12,319 per year per offender.  With every bed filled that’s $2,217,420 per year.  Avalon also operates two halfway houses for male offenders in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The suit also claims that the company’s failure to report the sexual misconduct “was motivated by a desire to maintain its contract with ODOC.”

That’s what this is all about – profit.  Law enforcement personnel profit with asset forfeitures.  Corrupt judges profit by keeping the beds filled in private prisons.  Private prisons profit with lucrative contracts.  Contracts which are awarded by the politicians who receive campaign money from the private prison corporations.  Everybody profits, except for the citizens.  How many millions of dollars are being needlessly wasted in corrections?  How much could JRI save the state if it was fully funded and implemented properly?  With the awarding of contracts to private prisons the politicians have relegated the states prisoners to mere chattel to be passed around and used as commodities for making a profit.  The incentive for rehabilitation is gone.  The incentive to prevent recidivism is gone.  With such a system, Senator Jolley is completely correct.  Our prison population will continue to grow, because that is what all these people want to happen. 

Do not get the idea from all I have written that I am soft on criminals.  Quite the contrary.  I am a firm believer in people paying for their crimes and for violent crimes, paying severely.  But at the same time, I am also a fiscal conservative and it does not benefit the state to lock up everyone who blinks the wrong way.  As Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz put it, “Certainly we want to put people we are afraid of in prison, but can we afford to put every person in prison we are mad at?”  No, we cannot.  There are alternatives for doing so, but these alternatives are being ignored.  When the people who make the decisions about corrections are more interested in profit than anything else, the state is already in a losing position.  Profiting from criminal justice is certainly nothing new.  It’s been done for centuries.  But, with the influx of private prisons and contracting out law enforcement, our justice system is changing into a system where the priority is profit and justice is an afterthought.

 

Share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on TumblrDigg thisShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someonePrint this page

6 comments to Profiting From Criminal Justice

  • LD Jackson

    Great post, Charles. It would seem to me that the priorities of the state of Oklahoma are rather screwed up, when it comes to the people it deems necessary to lock up. Certainly, we have people living in this state who are a danger to others. As such, they should be locked away, but for private companies to be so focused on their profits, that they lose focus on the real priorities, is a travesty of the justice that we say we pride ourselves in.

    I have a different viewpoint on profiting from our prisons. What is wrong with having the prisoners grow their own food and possibly sell some of it on the market? What is wrong with the prisoners manufacturing items to be sold to help defer the costs of the incarceration? If private prison companies can accomplish this and help the rehabilitation process, then kudos to them. If they can not, and are more focused on making their money, rather than justice, then they should be booted to the curb.

    • To my thinking, this all comes down to the politicians. They are the ones who make all this happen. After what I’ve read the use of private prisons has done to the state’s financial situation and the prison population I would go so far as to say every politician who votes for using private prisons is unethical, and if campaign contributions are involved, I label them corrupt. It may be completely legal, but it is morally and ethically corrupt.

      Most people don’t know that in Oklahoma there is the Oklahoma Correctional Industries, which produces over 5,000 products using prisoners for employees. You should check out their site at http://www.ocisales.com to read more. It appears to be a hugely successful program. My office has contracted with them for furniture in the past.

      • Jackie Switzer

        Unfortunately, State law prohibits regular citizens from buying items from any Department of Corrections Industry effort. 57 O.S. § 549.1 gives a list of agencies or organization types than can do business with OCI. But Section F starts off with

        “F. Others are prohibited from purchasing such goods and services, with the exception that all surplus agricultural products may be sold on the open market or bartered and exchanged for other food, feed or seed products of comparable value.”

        The State is shooting itself in the foot by limiting DOC’s opportunities to try and fund portions of itself.

      • Norma Sapp

        Thank You Mr. Phipps for covering this issue. I too have been involved in trying to educate the public for 23 years now. It’s very hard to fight this fight when our tools are truth, morals and compassion and theirs are money.

    • Norma Sapp

      Mr. Jackson, It is my understanding that Oklahoma prisoners used to grow their own produce and meat sources but then “someone” decided those needs could be met by outsourcing for less cost. I have seen this myself in my home gardening. There is no way I could put a head of lettuce on my table for $1.19 when you look at my time and water costs.