† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Liberals Take the Bait and Switch ~ the Myth of “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform”
by nancy a heitzeg
We agree with the New York Times: End Mass Incarceration Now. Increasingly, many do, as there are widening calls for “criminal justice reform.” But what does that look like?
We at CI have always advocated for Abolition, and that is certainly not the mainstay of what is being proposed. As we have written before, many calls for “bipartisan criminal justice reform” are thinly masked appeals to right-wing driven policies that seem “reasonable” in the short-run, but in the end make the prison industrial complex even more entrenched with new avenues for profiteering, and new color-blind policies that magnify racial disparity.
The reality of the “Right on Crime” agenda, is most simply, more privatization. Privatization ensures that any possibility for public accountability vanishes. Further privatization of criminal justice serves to pave the way for expanded privatization of other public programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, education, food and nutrition assistance, and so on. As we recently warned: expect more of this in the upcoming months and years ahead.
Case in point:
On the surface, this may seem reasonable, but pay careful attention to the rhetoric. Notice that the two problem states singled are are the Deep Blue states of New York and California – no accident. Notice too that Gingrich misleads by suggesting the $ is spent to keep inmates “hired” ( it isn’t – it is the per capita cost of incarceration) as if we are paying them $168,000 per yer. He certainly isn’t proposing that we use any money saved to send inmates to Yale, or seek meaningful efforts to reduce the structural conditions that contribute to incarceration, or in the specific example of Rikers Island where 40% of the population faces mental health issues, address the lack of funding for meaningful mental health services. No, he is complaining about money “wasted on prisoners”. In fact, his primary concern – as well as that of his colleagues on the right - is ” wasteful government spending” and so-called “public safety”. No surprises here.
Notice too the obfuscation created by our Token Democrat Van Jones. While Jones is justified in his condemnation of the exploding California prison system and Governor Brown’s “doubling down” on mass incarceration (see The PIC – Old School/New School 2 The Golden Gulag and Prison Privatization Part 1: Another Cautionary Tale from California), he is sadly mistaken if he thinks Mississippi’s “prison reform” is to be lauded or held up as an example of a leader in efforts to reduce mass incarceration. “Forward -leaning and progressive”? “Smarter”?
To the contrary.
House Bill 585, signed into law by Governor Bryant, is described as “a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that protects public safety, reigns in corrections costs and restores clarity to Mississippi’s criminal sentencing guidelines.” It is explicitly described as Right On Crime legislation that is supported by ALEC.
The legislation will focus expensive prison beds on serious and career offenders while strengthening community supervision and other sanctions for less serious offenders. It also provides a uniform definition of “crime of violence” for the first time ever and requires offenders convicted of a violent crimes to serve at least 50 percent of the sentence imposed by the court. It also creates targeted drug offense and property crime penalties that require tougher sentencing for serious offenders.
In addition, the legislation:
- Restores certainty and clarity to Mississippi’s sentencing system by establishing minimum percentages of sentences that inmates must serve before becoming eligible for release;
- Expands judicial discretion to impose research-proven alternatives to incarceration;
- Creates statewide standards for drug courts and establishes a veterans’ court system and;
- Ensures the quality and sustainability of the reforms by creating an oversight council and requiring the tracking of outcomes.
Sound familiar? It should. This is Right on Crime boiler-plate rhetoric for widening the net, and hence the opportunities for private profiteering. This in no way attempts to address racial disparity ( Mississippi incarcerates Blacks at 3.5 times the rate of whites). Nor is about stopping the flow of youth via school to prison pipelines such as the one subject to Federal intervention in the Merdian School District. It is decidedly not about decarceration — the focus is on reducing an estimated future increase in prison beds not releasing of current inmates – nor addressing the barbaric conditions produced by prison privatization . (Five of Mississippi’s eight correctional facilities are privatized, including Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility – deemed to be one of the Ten Worst Prisons in America – and East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), which houses severely mentally ill prisoners, and as an ACLU lawsuit contends, is rife with horrific abuses.)
Critics suggest that the new bill may actually increase incarceration costs and rates by stiffened drug penalties, expanded definitions of “violent crime”, and cost shifting to cities and counties . In the Prison Reform Bill’s Effectiveness Questioned, the Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP notes this:
House Bill 585 increases drug-trafficking penalties for anyone convicted of having at least a kilogram of marijuana with 10 to 40 years in prison. State law originally prosecuted people with a kilogram or more of marijuana for possession of an illegal substance. The bill also increases the minimum amount of prison-time required of individuals convicted of violent crimes to 50-percent of their sentences, and those convicted of nonviolent offense to serve 25-percent of their sentences…
HB 585 classifies all house burglaries as a violent crime, whether or not the occupant is even at home. Critics complain that the new designation would increase the occurrence of “habitual-lifers,” since it appears to eliminate earned time opportunities and denies drug treatment options to a class of offenders who could most benefit…
Local officials in retail-heavy areas also claimed that HB 585 allowed state legislators to dump costs down to local governments. Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey told reporters in March that the increase in the dollar amount required for a crime to qualify as a felony under HB 585 would put prosecution costs directly upon the municipalities and county courts, which often handle misdemeanor cases.
In addition, the new legislation widens the pool of clients now subject to Mississippi’s’ already privatized probation system, described as a system of extortion for poor defendants who face jail time for the most minor infractions over failure to pay fees. Mississippi is one of the states indicted in a recent Human Rights Watch Report (HRW 2014), Profiting from Probation: America’s Offender Funded Probation Program (pdf):
Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand misdemeanor offenders to probation overseen by private companies that charge their fees directly to the probationers. Often, the poorest people wind up paying the most in fees over time, in what amounts to a discriminatory penalty. And when they can’t pay, companies can and do secure their arrest…
In some cases, courts sentence offenders to probation because they think they require supervision and monitoring. But in many cases, people are sentenced to probation purely so that courts can task their probation companies with monitoring an offender’s efforts to pay down fines and court costs over time. These offenders would not be on probation at all if they could afford to pay these costs immediately and in full at the time of their sentencing.
Many are guilty only of minor traffic violations like driving without proof of insurance or seatbelt violations. While these offenses often carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, a probationer who fails to keep up with payments on their fines, court costs, and company fees can be locked up… [For example,] The Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, an impoverished community of 15,000, had more than 1,200 people on probation with the private firm Judicial Corrections Services as of August 2013. Many were guilty only of traffic offenses. The town’s municipal judge told Human Rights Watch that “maybe one or two” of those had warrants out for their arrest. The real figure was close to 300.
So No. Mississippi is not our Model of Criminal Justice Reform. Nor are the 32 other states wound up in the Right on Crime Agenda. Please note: it took less than 1 hour of searching to find all this information and expose the ruse of Mississippi “Reform”. Please ask questions, please look twice, please read between the lines. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Although the inclination right now is to leave the Right on Crime crew with The Last Words of Tupac Shakur, in the spirit of cooptation that has characterized right wing efforts towards “criminal justice reform”, let’s instead use their own War on Drug rhetoric that heralded the beginning of the mass incarceration madness they created:
Just Say No.
- Faith, Profit and Prisons
- Confidence Men & “Prison Reform”
- Con Artists, Profit and Community Corrections
- Smoke and Mirrors?
- The Promise/Peril of This Moment
- Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, A Look Through the Distorted Fun House Mirror