Contrary to popular belief, crime does pay. But not in the way you think. It’s not necessarily the criminals who profit. It’s the corporations that imprison them. You see, more and more of our states are replacing state-run prisons with prisons run by private corporations. And since the US has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and only 5 percent of the population, prisons have become a very big business.
Although crime is generally going down and the number of prisoners is shrinking, thanks to intensive lobbying efforts, we are still building more private prisons. To make matters worse, the prison corporations have contracts that dictate that they will not accept any prisoners with chronic illnesses. Their contracts guarantee 85 percent to 100 percent occupancy. Yet it has been shown that private prisons cost significantly more per prisoner than public prisons.
But cost is only one of the problems associated with private prisons. It has been reported that 78 percent of those entering prison have drug problems. Indeed, addiction is one of the contributing factors to most crimes. Yet only 6 percent receive treatment while in prison despite evidence that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves $18.02 in the cost of enforcement, court cases and incarceration.
50 percent of those in prison have committed non-violent crimes, many of them minor. But, because of its Three Strikes and You’re Out law, California has some people serving life sentences for such crimes as stealing a $69 jacket. This is not only inhumane. It’s ineffective. Criminologists know that the peak ages for crime are between 16 and 25. They also know that there is an optimum amount of punishment needed to prevent recidivism. That time varies according to the crime and the individual. If you keep someone in prison for too long, they are more likely to be violent when they get out. And since 93 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, you can see the potential for problems.
If you treat people like animals, they tend to act like animals.
Nevertheless, many politicians continue to push for more severe sentences and harsh conditions for prisoners. The mentality is to house criminals rather than rehabilitate them. Criminologists can prove that such policies don’t work. But their knowledge is often rejected because politicians have found that being “tough on crime” helps their chances for re-election.
Further, such “get tough” policies are good for the profits of private prison corporations. And the private prison corporations often contribute to political campaigns.
Unfortunately, our enormous prison population is damaging our country. It has not only harmed our human rights reputation around the globe. It has destroyed families and entire communities. 1 in 33 school children in the US have at least one parent in prison. 1 in 4 Americans have a felony record. Moreover, a study by the Pew Research Center found that if you arrest 500 people in a community of 100,000, you disrupt the entire community. Yet there are many communities in which we have arrested as many as 750.
Criminologists know that the best deterrent to crime is certainty of punishment more than the length and severity of punishment. But our politicians pay no attention. We also know that education prevents crime. Yet we now pay 40 percent more for prisons than we do for education.
Our priorities could not be more upside-down.