WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
by SHARON SMITH | August 31, 2001 | Page 6
RECENT STATISTICAL evidence gives the lie to the presumption underlying the "war on drugs"--that higher prison sentencing is a deterrent to crime. It's about two decades overdue.
The war on drugs tripled the U.S. prison population since 1980--with the vast majority incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related offenses.
A Sentencing Project study released last week shows that California's "three-strikes-and-you're-out" law--one of the harshest imprisonment policies in the U.S.--has had no effect on the state's crime rate in the seven years since it took effect.
"Crime had been declining for several years prior to the enactment of the three-strikes law, and what's happening in California is very consistent with what's been happening nationally, including states with no three-strikes law," argued Marc Mauer, author of the study.
The three-strikes law mandates that anyone convicted of any three felony-level crimes be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The majority of California inmates with three strikes were found guilty of nonviolent offenses. Many are now serving life terms for crimes as minor as stealing a slice of pizza, a pair of sneakers or even $20 worth of instant coffee.
And the overwhelmingly racist application of California's crime policies has put nearly one in every 33 California Blacks behind bars, compared with one in every 205 whites and one in every 122 Latinos.
The study shows that California's crime rate dropped by 41 percent between 1993 and 1999--exactly the same drop as in New York, which has no three-strikes law.
A comparison of New York and Texas crime rates reached similar conclusions last year. Texas added more new prisoners in the 1990s (98,081) than New York's entire prison population (73,233).
"If prisons are a cure for crime, Texas should have mightily outperformed New York during the 1990s, from a crime-control standpoint," argued Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute. But Schiraldi showed that, between 1990 and 1998, New York's crime rate drop surpassed Texas' by 26 percent.
Nevertheless, politicians stick to "tough-on-crime" policies. California Gov. Gray Davis has blocked every effort to soften the three-strikes law. Even with state prison populations now declining, massive prison expenditures are continuing.
Prisons, after all, became enormously profitable in the 1990s. Between 1995 and 1998, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was among the top five growth companies on Wall Street. CCA and Wackenhut Corp. together dominate 75 percent of the private-prison market.
But the CCA came close to bankruptcy last year due to lower incarceration rates in state courts. Now the Bush administration is coming to the rescue, offering new contracts to private prisons worth $4.6 billion over the next 10 years.
Private prisons will soon be filled with the swelling federal inmate population--which has grown despite the drop in crime. One reason for the sharp rise in federal prisoners is Clinton's 1996 Immigration Reform Act, which expanded the list of crimes for which immigrants can be thrown into federal prison.
Immigrants make up only 9.3 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 30 percent of federal prisoners. Roughly one-third are behind bars for minor immigration law infractions such as trying to reenter the country.
Bush has good reason for propping up the for-profit prison industry. He has longstanding ties to it, with 42 private prisons (more than any other state) in his home state of Texas.
And CCA's chief operating officer Michael Quinlan served as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) under George Bush Sr. Norman Carlson, who sits on Wackenhut's board of directors, was FBOP director under Ronald Reagan.
For-profit prisons are notorious for their inhumane conditions and brutality toward inmates. A Louisiana judge who removed four teenagers from a Wackenhut juvenile prison after they were systematically brutalized described the prison as a place that "treats juveniles as if they walked on four legs. These young people deserve to be treated as human beings, not animals."
Public opinion has swung away from the "tough-on-crime" policies of the last decade--and some people are taking action against them. Student activists on more than 50 campuses have organized a campaign against the campus food supplier Sodexho Marriott Food Service, because Sodexho also owns the largest block of stock in CCA. Under this pressure, five colleges, including the State University of New York at Albany, have severed their relationship with Sodexho.
It's time to declare war on the war on drugs.