Why We Can’t Reform Bad Policies

It’s the end of the semester, and like all professors at this time of the year, I am slogging through research papers and final exams, and complaining about otherwise bright students who can’t write a grammatically correct, properly spelled sentence. Or follow instructions. Or…

I’ll survive. (Although some students probably won’t…)

So long as their papers focus on the intersection of law and policy, I allow my students to explore whatever subjects interest them. For reasons I don’t understand, this often results in “waves” of papers addressing the same topic–in past years I’ve gotten several papers on the death penalty, or gun control, or euthanasia. This year, the favorites have been marijuana legalization and private prisons. (Students endorse legalizing pot; they object to privatizing prisons.)

The papers on private prisons compared inmate treatment, costs, oversight–the sorts of issues you would expect undergraduates to identify. But one of them also focused on a less-obvious consequence of prisons as business: lobbying by the “big guys” for more stringent punishments.

As the Washington Post recently reported

The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute….

[S]everal reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law – by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them, and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Showing just how important these policies are to the private prison industry, both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have warned shareholders that changes in these policies would hurt their bottom lines.

My students are quite properly critical of a system in which the profit motive, rather than public safety considerations, drive criminal justice policy.

I haven’t the heart to tell them that we live in an era when most policies aren’t the result of democratic deliberation informed by evidence and expertise — an era in which public policies are increasingly determined by campaign contributions and well-heeled lobbyists whose primary concern is for the bottom line–and screw the public good.


  1. Some of those kids don’t even know who Paul McCarthy is but grammar and punctuation should be something they have mastered by now. ugh. I remember helping a colleague by proof reading his first paper for our management class. I used a red pen and it looked like I bled all over it when I finished. I apologized for correcting his mistakes and he never asked me to proof read a document again. Somehow he graduated with honors. sigh.

  2. Money, dark money and more money and what they can buy are the problems with our failing political system.

  3. In the GEO facility in New Castle, an inmate had his brains bashed in. He was taken to Methodist hospital in Indy. The young man wanted to be an organ donor. GEO convinced his family that if they allowed that, then GEO could not prosecute the killer(s) in the GEO facility. ????? As a result, a dozen or so needy humans did NOT get vital organs from this healthy young man. I wonder if GEO found the killer in their midst? I wonder if they even tried. I never heard that they did. “For profit” prisons are a VERY bad idea. Many things are best done by GOVERNMENT. For goodness sake, lets not let the Justice Center in INDY be yet another private / profit mess.

  4. And that’s the same and most common reason that I get from young women and men when I ask them why they didn’t vote; “Because it’s rigged so that the lobbyists and the corporations fund the politicians to make laws and policies to favor the corporations and to funnel our money back to the corporations.”

  5. There is much more to higher education than sitting in paid-for college courses; there is being aware of what is actually going on in the world around them – if only on the local level – and realizing that it all effects their future. Broadening their horizons by keeping up with current events, researching media reports for factual backup, etc. Yes, this is more work, but it is not additional homework, it is one form of self-protection which is necessary today due to the current political climate. This leads us back to Sheila’s oft repeated bemoaning the lack of teaching civics before students reach college level – a more than valid complaint. I was serious a few days ago when I asked if there is a book, “Civics For Dummies”? I need one.

    Back in the mid-1970’s (when teachers were forcing “new math” on unsuspecting students and confused parents), my 4th grade son asked me to check his homework, a report on China. It was filled with erasures, blacked out and/or misspelled words, lack of punctuation and lousy grammar. I told him he couldn’t turn in a paper looking like that; his response was that the teacher didn’t care about the condition of the paper, only the information on China. He got a good grade.

    Today many residents of his age are running businesses, working in different levels of government and are elected officials minus basic knowledge to write a comprehensive document upholding laws and protecting us from white collar criminals within our government. Why should we be surprised at the lack of basic civic knowledge of college students when many of our leaders lack knowledge and understanding of the Constitution of the United States and it’s Amendments because they are more interested in lining their pockets with constributions and reciprocating their contributors if elected? We need to KNOW our elected officials, including their background and know and understand the full extent of the policies they force on us, many enacted as laws. This is called “transparency”; this is the “sunshine law” – this is the Freedom of Information Act which we need access to before electing officials – we cannot afford to pick and choose our topics as your students do at the end of the semester. We must be alert and aware of all issues effecing out lives – students need to learn this before they find themselves in the middle of “life” and don’t know how they got where they are.

    I have been stuck in the middle of the local criminal “justice” system for more than a year; I can tell you that the criminal in this case has thus far received more justice than I am seeing as a victim. My attack was on April 21, 2014; the 4th continuance date is August 17, 2015. I am being victimized by local officials, not the privately operated prison system. Poorly trained IMPD undercover officers who missed my attack and the 4th one the following week. Stuck in the prosecutor’s version of “justice” by not filing charging for all crimes the two criminals committed because, “…the more charges we file, the more charges we have to prove…” The problems begin before it reaches prison level; it moves on to those private prisons with little governmental protection of prisoner rights – only profit is of concern. Had those involved in our current situation been taught civics years ago – I doubt we would be where we are today, regarding marijuana laws, prison systems and the many other violations of our rights as Indiana residents and American citizens.

  6. Not to mention a public with Little desire to investigate stories beyond whatever generic frame the media (be it Fox red or MSNBC blue) presents. Say an issue is about “freedom” or “liberty” and people stop caring about digging deeper, that’s good enough.

  7. I was discussing with a co-worker that I think the past several decades in criminology research have shown us that doing nothing is sometimes better than doing something (see D.A.R.E. or “scared straight”). But my coworkers, incidentally poli sci majors, said that in politics spoon the wrong thing is preferable to inaction.

  8. I seem to remember an Indianapolis mayor named Goldsmith who introduced “privatization of government” to our fair city. His money saving ideas spread all over the place including the embrace of east coast academia. Big money is still pushing this concept of what I call “lazy government without accountability”. We are all told that it saves tax money but no one ever sees the books. As far as I know, no one ever asks to see the books. The immorality of this situation is not just what it is doing to those caught up in it; it is what this system has done and continues to do to the rest of us.

  9. Theresa; I worked in the Goldsmith administration, he hid Mayor’s Office employees in other Departments, paid through those other departments, then publicized how much he had undercut Hudnut’s spending to run the Mayor’s Office. He did this with many of his privatization recipients; listing the budget for actual city/county employees but not including the private businesses (some without contracts) being paid for with tax dollars. I won’t name the long time City-County Councilor who was too afraid of Goldsmith to dig into that budgetary system. One of his Mayor’s Office employees, located and paid through another department, was hired to study Welfare reform…a state issue, not a city government concern. Much of our tax money went into businesses in the state of Ohio, along with money to Goldsmith’s top financial advisor and campaign contributor, vice president of a Columbus, Ohio bank who was paid for a bogus job in city government. That administration was a Nixon microcosim. Thank you for remembering the roots of today’s Republican disaster at all levels of Indiana government.

  10. I hate to generalize the problem, but it’s “the rise of NIHILISM.” The Germans experienced it in the 20’s and 30’s as they moved the world toward catastrophe.

    ni-hil-ism n. the general rejection of customary beliefs in morality, religion, etc. [Webster’s New World Dictionary]

  11. Jo Ann, we have much in common I believe. I worked in the Peterson Administration and was there when so much of this wrongdoing was uncovered. The city will be recovering from this far into the next decade. If it has the will.

  12. Why anybody expects a single motive, increased wealth transfer from labor to owners of means, to solve social problems, baffles me.

    Why anybody expects that for profit won’t raise costs over the long term baffles me.

    Don’t these people have any business experience?

    Unfortunately we will be evermore known as the first generation of the easily misled. Our only excuse? We were seduced by entertainment into believing that our highest purpose was to be entertained.

  13. JoAnn, and all others there was an excellent book about the Gold$mith Regime – To Market to Market : Reinventing Indianapolis. Authors: Ingrid Ritchie, Sheila Suess Kennedy.

    Gold$mith was not the first person to use Privatization. I grew up in the Chicago land area under Daley the Elder. We had the same system but it was referred to as Patronage back then. Private Contractors would need to be “connected” and have a sponsor. Gold$mith took this system and with the collaboration of the Conservative Right Wing Media re-painted Patronage and presto-chango-alkazam it became Privatization.

    One big difference between Indianapolis and Chicago was some politicians in Chicago went to jail. Chicago Ald. Thomas E. Keane, was once considered the second-most powerful politician in the city, exceeded only by his close personal ally Mayor Richard J. Daley. Keene was the head of the Chicago City Council Finance Committee and was convicted of mail-fraud and conspiracy charges. He served 22 month in jail.

  14. Sheila,

    You can’t reform bad policies, because we live in a democracy. Democracies tend towards corruption.

    A democracy without parties, funding or advertising of any sort might be a little better, but just a little.

    In our form of democracy where people only get to cast one vote, the government will tend to have always just two parties. A single-vote, two-party democracy is a really bad system that will tend to resolve in a corrupt government beholden to narrow interests.

    The only way out of the problem is to ban political parties; ban the single vote; cap campaign funding, and ban campaign advertising.

    As long as we have the First Amendment, campaign funding and campaign advertising will be protected, so these problems will never be fixed, because the interests that control the government, teacher’s lobbies, unions, etc., don’t want them to be fixed.

    Our Constitution has truly become a “suicide pact.”

  15. Sheila – Your students are well taught. I hope you will ask them to duplicate and mail their papers to a collection of officeholders and media to share their research. Some –
    especially the many younger faces in the General Assembly and the media but many of the older ones as well – have never seen such research. Some may reject it out of hand,
    but they will want to know what pros and cons the research has to offer. They’ll even remember some of it. Others will welcome the ammunition to continue their fight against privatization.

    It’s a particularly good time to share the information with municipal candidates, but others need to see the information as well.

    You and your students have performed a public service. Thank you for dropping it in these waters and letting the research ripples roll.

  16. Gopper

    “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Winston S. Churchill

    Democracy maximizes freedom by giving people the ultimate control over who governs. Other than that there isn’t much to recommend it.

    Any other form of government lowers that control from all of us, collectively, to fewer of us. That creates the power for those few over the many.

    And power corrupts. Absolute power currupts absolutely.

    So the founders who actually experienced being subject to the power of others were right. Freedom may (and does) make mistakes but can also correct them.

    Oligarchy not so much.

  17. “Democracy maximizes freedom by giving people the ultimate control over who governs. ”

    You never stop with nonsense and a stream of logical fallacies.

    Look up “conclusory statement,” and never say write word until you fully inoculate your thinking from this infection.

    What a stream of nonsense that quote is. Literally, every couple of words is empirically false gibberish.

  18. Gopper: perhaps you can inform us of a form of government which is superior to democracy in terms of the input of the governed into who governs.

  19. Louie, you bring up an interesting point. During the reign of Daly the Elder was “patronage” more prevalent but less malignant than today’s harvesting of the middle class?

  20. Gopper:

    To put it another way: Other than authoritative , accommodative, or democratic, What other forms of government are there?

  21. Pete, I am not sure I can answer your question. Both Mike Ryoko and Len O’Connor wrote excellent books on Daley the Elder and the inner workings of Chicago. I can say it helped greatly to be connected and have a sponsor to obtain a City or County job back then. The expectation was you would buy tickets to your sponsors or patrons Golf Outings, etc., to remain in good standing.

    The other idea was the Citizens must realize the benefits the Machine Delivered to them, garbage picked up, streets paved, and snowplowed. The obligation for the Precinct Captain was to have “Happy Citizens” that would come out to vote. Daley was never in jeopardy of losing , but when you had County wide, State Wide or Presidential Elections the vote must be produced for the Party.

    Chicago was a far different place in the early 1960’s than today. We had large steel mills and the associated industries that supported them. During the late 1970’s the mills folded up for various reasons but I think it is safe to say the War on the Middle Class began then. Thousands of workers were put out on the streets permanently losing their jobs.

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