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If Officials Want to Reduce Incarceration, They’ll Have to Take on Private Prisons

We must address our failed “war on drugs” and confront the perverse incentives of for-profit prisons.

Ronal Serpas, co-chair of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, in 2010. Image by Bart Everson via Flickr

Over 130 American police chiefs and prosecutors have signed on to reduce incarceration with the new national coalition Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. In a mission statement, the group announced that they are basing this initiative on data.


“As current and former leaders of the law enforcement community—police chiefs, sheriffs, district and state’s attorneys, U.S. attorneys, attorneys general and other leaders—protecting public safety is a vital goal,” Law Enforcement Leaders announced. “From experience and through data-driven and innovative practices, we know the country can reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration.”

While this is a step in the right direction, a couple of other things need to happen as well. The first has to do with the war on drugs, and the second with the private prison complex.

Law Enforcement Leaders’ co-chair Ronal Serpas, a former police superintendent in New Orleans, readily admits that drug offenders—specifically, drug addicts—drive up the prison population numbers.

“Our officers are losing all day long on arrest reports and at lockups dropping off prisoners,” Serpas told NPR. “It’s for low-level offenders who pose no threat to the community, are posing very little to no threat for recidivism, and overwhelmingly are just folks who have mental health or drug addiction problems that there’s no place else for them to go.”

This is an important admission, but Law Enforcement Leaders could go a step further. They could admit that the wider war on drugs, inaugurated under the Nixon presidency, has been a total failure. Instead of stemming the tide of drugs in and out of the United States, it has—along with a crime wave between 1975 and 1991, aggressive prosecution and “tough on crime” laws—flooded our prisons with convicts.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 48.4 percent of inmates are locked up because of drug offenses. And in state prisons, roughly 17 percent of inmates are there on drug convictions. Wipe out the war on drugs, and prison populations will fall.

Y-axis is incarecrated population, x-axis is type of offense. Column "e" represents drug offenses. Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Equally vital is a reckoning with the prison industrial complex. This industry includes not only for-profit prisons, but also those companies that supply prisons with materials and goods—clothes, beds, toilets, prison facilities themselves, and so on.

As the ACLU noted in the 2012 report “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” for-profit prison expansion has “walked hand-in-hand” with an increase in incarceration. This came about in part because of the war on drugs and tough-on-crime laws that delivered harsh sentences to drug offenders and other convicts.

As Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff told Slate earlier this year, aggressive arrests and prosecutions ramped up during a 1975-1991 crime wave, and continued accelerating even as crime began to dip in 1992. Private prisons, which benefit from more prisoners being incarcerated for extended periods of time (under tough-on-crime laws), certainly benefitted from this crime prevention strategy—to the tune of $3 billion in annual revenue for two of the largest prison companies.

Any law enforcement effort to reduce incarceration will run headlong into the private prison industry lobby, which isn’t going to let its profits vanish, and needs a steady stream of new prisoners to make its bottom line. Law Enforcement Leaders better be prepared for a fight.

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