The big business of punishment goes bust

Six decades ago President Dwight Eisenhower described our nation’s “military-industrial complex.” He bemoaned the influence that corporate interests were beginning to have on when and where we would fight our wars. Eisenhower believed that the motivation for future wars might stem less from the protection of national security than the quest for corporate profit-taking and politicians’ financial gain.

The quest for law, order and safety here at home appears to have followed a similar path. Institutions designed to predict and prevent crime and punish law breakers now have all the attributes of a big business conglomerate — a money spending /making enterprise that millions of Americans depend on for their livelihoods and professions. We now have in place a “prison-industrial complex.”

Those dependent on the complex’s money flows extend from law enforcement to prosecutors to criminal defense lawyers to the judiciary to correctional officers, and those engaged in post-punishment supervision. It also includes thousands of academic researchers, media pundits and bureaucrats whose jobs are to count and describe our crime problem. Add the many communities which house this vast army of workers and their families, and the tally of those who stand to benefit expands exponentially.

Paradoxically, in pursuit of a crime-free society, we have become a nation in which a substantial chunk of our federal, state and local economies depend on a high rate of crime and a steady flow of lawbreakers into the institutional pipelines that constitute our justice system. Put simply, we have become financially addicted to crime and its punishment; and that dependency has grown over time.

For example, in 1973, a bit more than 200,000 inmates were locked up in state and federal prisons and an additional 140,000 were confined in jails. Forty years later, we have more than 2 million people confined in prisons and jails and a total of nearly 8 million are under the supervision of the justice system, i.e., in prisons and jails or on parole or probation.

Despite current efforts to reduce the size of the prison population in most states, evidence of our punishment paradox abounds. For-profit prisons continue to make headway in many states; and seeking future jobs, specialization in criminal justice is the fastest growing of all majors among undergraduate university students.

At the same time, our sagging, post- 2008 national economy has taken a toll. Dependence on public funds has always meant that the U.S. justice system experiences periods of boom and bust linked to the overall economy. But the sheer size of our present prison-industrial complex has brought about greater, and potentially more daunting, challenges than during the past.

In California, fearing job losses, the prison guard union fought hard against court-directed efforts to reduce the size of that state’s prison population. Even before the recent economic downturn, economically distressed counties and towns in many states petitioned decision makers to place new correctional units in their areas. Recently, some have even begged to have Guantanamo Bay terrorists confined in unoccupied state and local prison facilities.

Closer to home, The Commercial on Jan. 29 reported that Jefferson County officials have expressed much concern for the projected $629,000 shortfall in funding for the adult jail and juvenile detention center. Lee Johnson, center director, noted that the juvenile center has a holding capacity for 87 juveniles but now holds only 40 to 45 youths.

Herman Ginger cited competition from nearby juvenile facilities. The imposition of a fee for juvenile detainees was discussed, but most officials seemed to think that the ultimate solution is an increase in the numbers of juvenile detainees. County Judge Dutch King was quoted as saying: “We need more juveniles in there. If we keep going at the rate we’re going, we will go broke.”

The officials’ discussion reflects the quandary faced by justice systems officials and politicians all across the nation. Facing a crime decline of perhaps historic proportions since the mid 1990s, we may now have a glut of facilities and personnel brought on line to accommodate our post-1973 imprisonment binge.

Going broke would not be good for our county, nor will massive layoffs of county correctional personnel. But also inadvisable may be questionable efforts on the part of officials to add to our juvenile detention count. As a community, should not our goal be that of keeping our youths crime/detention-free?

On the other hand, I fear that the considerable discretion allowed system officials in deciding whom to arrest/detain and process as a lawbreaker or person at risk may be used to assure a “since we have built them, let them enter” approach to filling both our juvenile and adult correctional facilities here in our county and elsewhere in the nation. Punishment addictions are hard to break.