Prison Nation Going Broke

by Douglas French
Mar. 14, 2012

The New York Times reports of more financial woes for municipalities. Suffolk County will run $530 million into the red over the next three years and has declared a financial emergency. The New York state oversight board already seized financial control of Suffolk’s Long Island neighbor, Nassau County.

Danny Hakim writes,

Even as there are glimmers of a national economic recovery, cities and counties increasingly find themselves in the middle of a financial crisis. The problems are spreading as municipalities face a toxic mix of stresses that has been brewing for years, including soaring pension, Medicaid and retiree health care costs. And many have exhausted creative accounting maneuvers and one-time spending cuts or revenue-raisers to bail themselves out.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg told a radio audience, “Towns and counties across the state are starting to have to make the real choices — fewer cops, fewer firefighters, slower ambulance response, less teachers in front of the classroom.”

But this is not just a New York problem. State government has taken over finances for a number of cities in Michigan. Jefferson County, Alabama filed Chapter 9 and Stockton California is close to filing BK.

Municipalities shoulder much of the judicial system that polices, administers, and adjudicates the war on drugs and prison nation. The prison population in America equals that of the cities of Los Angeles and Miami combined. Putting this many people behind bars to be forgotten about by society is expensive, costing $6 billion a year.

The fact is most people shouldn’t be there in the first place. Loyola professor and prison economics expert Daniel J. D’Amico explains that the huge ramp-up in prison population began in the 1970s. Before then, the rate of incarceration remained stable at around 110 people in prison per 100,000. President Richard Nixon first used the term “war on drugs” on June 17, 1971 and then came the “tough on crime” movement lter that decade.

In 1980, fewer than half a million Americans were incarcerated. By 2008, the number was approaching 2.5 million. Another 4 million people are on probation. It is not violent criminals who are filling the nation’s jails and prisons. About half the prisoners in state penitentiaries are considered violent; less than 8 percent in federal prisons are violent, and fewer than 22 percent in the nation’s jails are there for a violent offense.

How can cash-strapped governments keep the monolithic judicial system operating?

Clarence Darrow starts Resist Not Evil by calling the state what it is: a violent aggressor. And a violent institution must have armies, functionaries, and civil governments to punish those who offend. But doesn’t everyone in America have a Sixth Amendment right to a trial?

Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander says the only way the system works now is by the accused giving up their constitutional rights. Ms. Alexander explains,

But in this era of mass incarceration — when our nation’s prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement — these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.

Alexander writes that the system is rigged, quoting Cato’s Timothy Lynch. “The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used.”

The court ruled in Harmelin v. Michigan there was nothing cruel and unusual about life in prison for a first time drug offense. So people waive their rights and make the best deal they can, even it means years behind bars for a non-violent offense.

“The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control,” Alexander writes. “If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation.”

Criminal justice is yet another area where the government is going broke providing substandard service.

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