Thursday, May 5, 2011

Prisons, Inequality and Profits: a Deadly Combo

In our first post of the Race and the Commons series, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld takes a look at prisons.

Prisons have been one of the public expenditures targeted for cuts as a result of states' revenue crises. There have been indications from several governors that they're finally going to pursue criminal justice policies that are both more humane, and also more cost-effective. Some have called this the "silver lining" of the current budget cutting mania, but reducing prison funding alone won't address the deeper racial dyanamic at play in our criminal justice system.

It's widely known that the criminal justice system is plagued by racial disparities. From profiling practices that put people of color under greater scrutiny to excessively harsh sentencing practices (particularly due to "three strikes" laws and the "war on drugs"), it's no surprise that 1/3 of black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives and that more than 60% of the prison population are people of color even though we make up less than 30% of the total national population.

We have one of the most unequal societies and the world's largest prison population. The rampant inequality that caused the economic crisis is also connected to the disparities of our criminal justice system. And even in this budget environment where Governors appear to be considering ways to reduce the prison population and seek alternatives to widespread incarceration, there are also signs that there are those poised to profit from the criminal justice reforms.

Ohio's Governor has proposed privatizing several of the state's prisons. And just this past week, Florida's legislature approved their governor's prison privatization proposal. Even California is sending inmates to private prisons in other states. Privatization gets sold to the public as a way to reduce government expenditures and increase revenue (that is IF the private corporations running the prisons actually were to pay taxes). But often privatization simply helps campaign donors go into business and profit off of services that were public.

Not only have private prisons been plagued with abuses of inmates and escapes of violent criminals, but criminal justice -- like healthcare and education -- should be kept public and protected from the profit motive.

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