Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Hangover: Your Tab for 30 Years of Binging on Imprisonment

Four excellent articles you can chalk up to the massive hangover settling across the U.S. as the tab for 30 plus years of binging on imprisonment is coming due.

The Other Death Sentence:

As of 2010, state and federal prisons housed more than 26,000 inmates 65 and older and nearly five times that number 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. (Both numbers are significant, since long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person's physical age; in prison, 55 is old.) From 1995 to 2010, as America's prison population grew 42 percent, the number of inmates over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.

The trend is worsening. A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that, by 2030, the over-55 group will number more than 400,000—about a third of the overall prison population. (See chart.) "It's huge," says Bob Hood, the former warden of the mammoth federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado. "We're behind the eight-ball on this."

The boom in geriatric prisoners is the inevitable result of legislation from the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, which extended sentences and slashed parole opportunities, both dramatically so. According to a June report by the Pew Center on the States, drug offenders released in 2009 had spent 36 percent longer behind bars, on average, than those released in 1990. One in ten state prisoners nowadays is a lifer, and about the same proportion of federal prisoners over 50 are serving 30 to life. In short, more than 100,000 prisoners are currently destined to die in prison, and far more will remain there well into their 60s and 70s. Many of these men—as most of them are men—were never violent criminals, even in their youth. In Texas, for example, 65 percent of the older prisoners are in for nonviolent acts such as drug possession and property crimes.

Of course, Texas likes killing people, so no biggie on that last stat. But the greying of the prison population, which we here at TPE have been warning about for years, is finally starting to play out as cash-strapped states face the costs of dealing with what are rapidly becoming the world's largest nursing homes.

How The Federal Government Is Killing Community Policing:
Increasingly, across the country, the town cop who walks a beat and relies on trust with locals may be a thing of the past; your neighborhood police investigation is increasingly likely to be a federal initiative, built on cooperation between your local police department and Washington, DC. In fact, with feds and local cops increasing their collaborations and seeking funding to expand their joint investigations, we may be seeing the end of “community policing” as we’ve known it. In the short run, this has been a good thing, since crime has grown more complex and stiff federal penalties are often necessary deterrents. But in the long run, it’s shaping up to be the biggest challenge to liberal governance and local autonomy that we’ve seen in some time.

FEDERAL-LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS currently target a surprisingly wide range of crimes and it’s hard to pinpoint the criteria determining the involvement of FBI, DEA, ICE and other Department of Justice officials in local matters. Sometimes the locals are out-matched, at other times multiple-jurisdictions require federal coordination, and on occasion, a federal prosecutor simply finds a racketeering case too good to pass up. It’s almost always true, however, that the relationship is openly transactional. The feds bring gifts to the locals, in the form of cars, decent pay, and fancy surveillance gadgetry. In return the feds “rent” local cops (and the local knowledge they possess).

This goes back to the Johnson administration and the creation of the LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) which began the federalism of local policing. By pumping billions of dollars to local police departments, in the form of grants, to beef up armor, firepower, surveillance techniques, and so forth, the LEAA began the long, steady march towards the militarization of policing in the U.S.

Further, as the War on Drugs morphed into the War on Terror (and today's War on Immigrants), the long arm of the feds can be felt everywhere, particularly in the way we lock up, en masse, more people per capita than any country on the planet. And the private sector is playing a bigger role than you think.

Lawmakers and Lobbyists Keep A Lock On Private Prison Companies:
Early in August, the Associated Press reported that America's three largest private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc and Management and Training Corp spent in the region of $45m over the past 10 years in lobbying state and federal governments. During the same period, these companies saw their profits soar as they scored more government contracts.

As it turns out, the CCA is doing just fine. Its revenue in 2010 was a record $1.67bn, an increase of $46m from 2009. Half of that revenue came from contracts with states, and 43% of it came from federal contracts with the US Marshals, the Bureau of Prisons and ICE. Since 9/11, the number of immigrants held in detention has grown exponentially, and the number held in private prisons (not just the CCA's facilities) has increased during that period by 206%, according to a report (pdf) by the Sentencing Project.

Great article by the sociologist Venkatesh. As I've told students the past 10 years, CCA is a good stock buy. It's a lousy, disgusting, sordid, "blood money" kind of business, to be sure, but a solid bet financially.

Last, this article argues that we may be turning a corner in terms of the politics of punishment.

Why Punishment is Purple:
These opposing feelings—excitement about Right on Crime and displeasure with Obama’s actions—are due largely to a belief that criminal justice is a red and blue issue. That is, Republicans favor harsh penal sanctions and oppose rehabilitation, while Democrats support less punitive penalties and more rehabilitation and treatment. Right on Crime and Obama’s positions seem to defy common sense about the politics of punishment.

A strong line of social science research shows that this “common sense” is wrong. Crime politics do not fit neatly within a red vs. blue framework. Although it is true that Republicans ignited the “law and order” movement in the 1960s, Democrats have supported—and, at times, initiated—incredibly punitive policies for over three decades. Further, Republican lawmakers and conservative states have initiated some of the most promising criminal justice reforms in recent years. Belying typical party labels, punishment today is a curious shade of purple
The author goes on to cite the history of the modern politics of punishment, which sounds interestingly (and suspiciously) like my 3150 lectures on the same topic, but with this prediction for the 2010's and beyond:
Taken together, it appears that the 21st century’s politics of punishment is becoming a new shade of purple, with lawmakers from both parties supporting just enough change to bring down costs and ease prison overcrowding. The slight variation in hue, however, will not be enough to end mass imprisonment.
He says nothing about the fact that the recession the past four years has caused a lot of this sudden soul-searching on both the right and left, but the only thing you can color me is skeptical.

I would be quite surprised if the politics of punishment really changes anytime soon. Punishment is the third rail of politics and no party is immune from its reach. We may not be binging on imprisonment to the degree we once did, but the idea of letting out low-level offenders is something neither party is going to embrace.

The grim picture painted in these four articles suggests we are like drunks who have been on a 30-year bender doing shots of imprisonment. And now sober, bleary-eyed, nauseous and shading our eyes from the sun, the bartender (society) just stuck us with a tab which dwarfs comprehension.

And like all hangovers, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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