February 10, 2016

MALPASS | America’s Prison Problem

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There are plenty of pressing issues at hand — the environment, our foreign policy regarding the Middle East and the economy to name a few. We hear these topics covered in the presidential candidate debates nonstop and as important as they are, they can draw attention away from other issues important to this country, specifically our broken justice system. There is plenty to be said on this issue — I’d say its most pressing concern is racial bias — but I would like to discuss another worrying trend in our justice system: the increasing privatization of our prison system.

Privatizing prisons does nothing for us in the long run. I don’t care what you think the point of prisons are (be it to punish the guilty, or rehabilitate them back into society), when the system becomes private, prisoners begin to become a financial bottom line. It’s in a private prison’s best interest to have a lot of prisoners, because with more prisoners comes more funding and more business. It’s in their best economic interest to keep people in jail and keeping recidivism rates high. I know that sounds a little conspiracy theory-ish, but consider that the some of the biggest entities fighting against marijuana legalization are private prison lobbies, along with police unions and drug companies. And non-violent drug offenders are exactly the sort of people private prisons want: the low risk type.

And this is all still supposing that private prisons are in fact cheaper, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In 2011, The New York Times reported that in Arizona private prisons are not only more expensive, but they even cut costs by only taking the prisoners who would be the least amount of work for them. Sure, they are helping to deal with the spillover in the justice system, but they’re still leaving the more problematic criminals for the state and federal systems to handle.

States fund private prisons because they believe they’re  cheaper, but prisoners should be a financial obligation of the state, and nothing will influence a politician to make changes more than money — particularly money that is being lost. If we can just foist our inmates onto a corporate body, they cease being our problem. Thus, we don’t have any incentive to take steps to rectify the root cause of crime. However, if prisons are entirely our financial responsibility, we’re going to want to make sure we need as few of them as possible. We can start really focusing on eliminating the reasons people break the law which is vastly more effective than locking up everyone who commits a crime. As it goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Which is fundamentally what I believe the U.S. Department of Justice should be working on. Sending someone to prison may as well be a death sentence for their careers because very few employers are going to hire someone with a past conviction on their record. And before you accuse me of being “soft on crime,” I’m not referring to murderers and rapists, simply nonviolent offenders (particularly those concerning drug charges) or even those who made a dumb choice early in their lives, such as thievery. Recidivism rates are still intolerably high; a study released in 2014 reported that 76.6 percent of convicts were arrested again within five years of being let out of jail. Having these individuals without jobs, without a chance at making a life for themselves is only putting a drain on our economic resources. As of now, most put nothing into the system, but draw plenty out, not only during their stay in prison but over their entire lives. Sure, the old maxim applies “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” but that’s not doing anything to alleviate the financial burden being placed on the taxpayer, and private prisons are certainly not helping.

Both Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to end the privatization of prisons, which is a step forward. However, we should be a little suspicious in the former’s conviction on the matter, considering Clinton has accepted donations from private prison lobbies before, to the tune of over $130,000. On the other hand, in past months Sanders has put forth a bill to stop these practices. And while I can’t tell you who to vote for, please consider this matter alongside the other, more fashionable issues being debated in this election season.

Soren Malpass is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at skm94@cornell.edu. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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