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For-Profit Prison Industry Not a Smart Investment

January 06, 2016

I-want-you-prison432x617If there's an adjective that defines our era, it's "smart." Smartphones, smart cars, smart policy, you name it. We live in a time when people expect and demand that everything in their lives — from their thermostat to their government — operate intelligently, transparently, and with an adherence to common sense.

That explains why there is rare cross-ideological and bipartisan support for fixing what can only be called the "dumb" criminal justice system in the United States. For the past thirty years, a "lock 'em up" approach to crime has left us with 25 percent of the world's prisoners and an incarceration system that does very little to rehabilitate people, treat people who are addicted to illicit substances, or make our communities healthier and safer.

The momentum behind change is leading to real reforms on the ground. Some truly smart new approaches to criminal justice are already making a difference, with foundations helping to lead the way.

One of the best examples is the "Public Safety Assessment," a data-based tool that gives judges guidance on whom to lock up and who to release during the period between a defendant’s arrest and trial. Created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the tool uses the same kind of algorithms that direct drivers to routes with less traffic and allow epidemiologists to monitor disease outbreaks. The tool is used in dozens of states and jurisdictions, including here in California, and it is proven to reduce repeat offenses, overcrowding in prisons, and crime.

Most importantly, by tackling the problem on the front end — during the pretrial period — PSA applies the power of prevention, which is well documented in health care, to our broken criminal justice system.

We need to apply the same kind of smart thinking throughout the system.

Perhaps one of the best places to start is to shut down the for-profit incarceration industry, which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, currently houses up to 8 percent of our states’ prison population and, according to the Huffington Post, half of all immigration-related federal detainees.

Let's begin with the obvious. This is an industry with a financial incentive to keep people locked up. It's an industry that profits when people repeat crimes and are sent back to prison. It's an industry ostensibly there to serve the public interest, but one that has no real interest in seeing prisons serve a rehabilitation function.  

In fact, according to the Washington Post, many of these companies have clauses in their government contracts that stipulate a pre-set occupancy rate — usually 90 percent. That is, the government in question has to produce prisoners or it loses money. Even worse, given that the prison system disproportionately locks up men of color, private prisons perpetuate systemic injustice.

All of this isn't just the opposite of smart; it's immoral.

So how do we shift from for-profit prisons to government-run ones where incentives and goals are established around efficiency and recovery?

One of the best ways is to turn financial capital — the lifeblood of for-profit prison companies — against the industry.

To that end, the California Endowment recently announced it would divest from any investment funds that included for-profit incarceration companies. Our CEO, Dr. Robert Ross, explained the rationale for the move quite simply: "The California Endowment strongly supports community safety and stands with communities that experience serious disparities in incarceration rates for non-violent offenses that could be handled through drug treatment and other programs that help prevent non-violent crime. It is essential our investment strategies take into account the potential impacts they could have on the communities we serve."

Daniel_zingale_for_PhilanTopicThe United States must get out of the for-profit incarceration industry, and foundations can lead the way by setting an example and continuing to work to transform the criminal justice system into one that is smart, moral, and effective.

Daniel Zingale is senior vice president at the California Endowment.

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