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Privatization of prisons hinders criminal justice reform

Despite declining crime rates, incarceration rates are at an all time high in the United States with 2 million adults in prison, including 150,000 in California institutions.  The number of people in private prisons has increased more rapidly than the rate of people sentenced to state and federal facilities.  The reason behind this growth is due to the direct link between the private prison industry, monopolized by the GEO group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and The American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  Since the tremendous increase in privatization of the criminal justice sector in 2001, CCA has earned over $1 billion per year.

Covered extensively on CJCJ's interest groups web page, tough-on-crime legislation drafted by ALEC, has led to the boost in prison population both due to higher rates of incarceration and lengthier sentences.  For example, ALEC has successfully pushed for the tightening of drug laws, even though incarceration has not been an effective approach for this population of offenders, as they would be better served through community-based rehabilitation and treatment.  For more information about ALEC's policy recommendations, read CJCJ's 2011 report on ALEC

While ALEC drafts the legislation, corporations including CCA and the GEO group provide the financial backing for influencing policy, contributing over $6 million annually through their membership dues.  Read CJCJ's 2010 report, The Prison Industry, for more information on the prison industrial complex.

How will this affect California and other states?

The May 2011 Supreme Court decision to reduce levels of overcrowding and Governor Brown's realignment plan provides a prime opportunity for counties to focus on alternatives to incarceration, rather than simply paying private prisons to take over the responsibility of our growing levels of  incarcerated individuals.  California is not the only state beginning to focus on the root of the overcrowding problem - over reliance on incarceration.   As the PEW center reports, many states including Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Colorado have passed similar bills targeting the reduction of the lower level offender population, primarily those sentenced for drug related offenses and probation violations.

However, even as many states are beginning to reduce incarceration levels and restructure the management and supervision of offenders, CCA and GEO group could hinder these reform efforts as they pursue profit through policies that drive incarceration rates up.  In their June 2011 report, Gaming the System, the Justice Policy Institute explains, the private prison industry's goal is to appeal to state policy makers, particularly in California, that may wish "to transfer, rather than reduce, the number of people they lock up."   Between 2003 and 2010, CCA and GEO group contributed approximately $680,000 to California state legislative campaigns.

California must be particularly aware of these plans since CCA and GEO group direct their lobbying to states seeking quick and simple solutions to decreasing their inmate population.  Currently between 12-13% of Californians are held in prisons run by CCA, and CCA intends to expand in the coming years.  CCA states it plans on spending "$52.0 million to $62.0 million in on-going prison construction and expenditures related to potential land acquisitions" in 2011. 

Dr. James Peterson of Lehigh University warned on The Ed Show in June, "once we incentivize private corporations to incarcerate folk- when their bottom line is beds and putting bodies in those beds- then we have essentially removed justice from the criminal justice system."

Private prison industries profit by incarcerating people.  They have been successful in securing contracts with state and federal officials, as a result of their political campaign contributions and relationship building with policymakers that have led to political appointments of former industry officials.  CJCJ believes local governments must not be swayed by corporate lobbyists and instead look to model jurisdictions to understand how certain offenders can be best-served at the community level.  Ultimately, continuing to rely on incarceration is not a wise public safety policy when three-quarters of all those incarcerated are released back into their communities. 

~Emily Luhrs
SSP Case Specialist

Keywords: Emily Luhrs, prisons, privatization

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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