Every once in a while, my city gives me something to brag about. Most recently, that’s the current administration’s approach to Criminal Justice.
When the city heads to Wall Street Thursday to borrow $610 million to build a jail and criminal justice complex on the site of an old coking factory, it’s betting it can better house criminals and rehabilitate them on its own. That means CoreCivic, which has run a Marion County jail for two decades, will lose the contract when the new one opens.
The decision to sever ties with CoreCivic is part of a shift in policy-making that seeks to address a cycle of recidivism that keeps sending repeat offenders back to jail. It joins other governments nationwide, including California, that are reconsidering a reliance on the private companies that stepped in as the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws caused inmate populations to soar, leaving more than half of the states paying businesses to incarcerate their residents.
There is a mountain of data detailing what’s wrong with private prisons. (When my graduate students choose to write their research papers on the subject of for-profit prisons, their conclusions range from highly critical to horrified, and for good reason.) Zach Adamson, Vice-President of the Indianapolis City-County Council is quoted in the article with what may be the best summary of the problem with prisons for profit:
“The idea that there would be profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people—many of our constituents cannot process that,” said Zach Adamson, vice president of the council that oversees the consolidated government of Indianapolis and Marion County. “Criminal justice is not getting better as long as our primary concern is looking to cut corners and save costs.” (emphasis supplied)
In 2016, the city convened a task force to consider ways Indianapolis could cut crime and address jail overcrowding. The task force recommended addressing “underlying causes,” in an effort to reduce both crime and the $440 million dollars Indianapolis spends on criminal justice each year–far and away the city’s biggest expense.
The issues facing Indianapolis are hardly unique: some 40% of people detained in the country’s jails are mentally ill and up to 85 percent suffer from substance abuse (with respect to those who are mentally ill, psychiatrists tell us that substance abuse is an effort at “self-medicating.”)
The complex will consolidate the courthouse, its jails, and rehabilitation operations in one modern site. The city-county council voted in April 2018 not to privatize the new lockup, dealing a blow to CoreCivic, which has managed a facility there since 1997.
“The goal of the jail system shouldn’t be to fill the beds,” said Andy Mallon, corporation counsel for the government. “We’re trying to reduce crime and reduce the number of people who are involved in crime.”
Mallon’s observation is at the heart of what’s wrong with privatizing these elements of the criminal justice system. Private prison companies are in business to fill beds, and to do so as cheaply as possible, not to rehabilitate offenders. Their lobbyists work to criminalize additional behaviors and increase prison terms for offenses already on the books–measures that feed their bottom lines.
Their goal isn’t public safety, it’s profit, and the big private prison companies donate generously to politicians in order to protect those profits.
During the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice and several state governments responded to the research, recognized the existence of the perverse incentives, and began terminating contracts with companies like GEO and CoreCivic. Then, of course, we got Trump, and headlines like these:”Trump’s First Year Has Been the Private Prison Industry’s Best.” and “Trump’s Immigrant-Detention Plans Benefit Private Prison Operators.”
In Indianapolis, I am happy to say, the city has chosen to bring best practices to bear on its criminal justice problems, to evaluate those it incarcerates in order to determine appropriate interventions– and to stop paying for-profit companies to warehouse offenders.