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/ April 24, 2012
Private Prisons Profit Off Pot Policing

Marijuana arrests in New York are at an all-time high, with over 50,000 arrests taking place last year — and some people are very happy about that.

Private prison corporations profit every time someone is locked up. In recent years they have found new ways to ensure they  always have “customers,” from lobbying to keep sentences high, to paying off judges to lock up kids for minor crimes. Alarmingly, it looks like the private prison industry is winning — America now has more prisoners than any other nation on earth.

Two of the largest private prison providers, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, operate 126 prisons in the U.S.. In 2010, they hauled in over $2.9 billion in revenue.

That money was used to assure a constant stream of prisoners to fill cells.

Some went through tried-and-true channels for influencing government policy, like campaign contributions and lobbying. According to a report by the Justice Police Institute [PDF], private prison groups donated $6 million to state candidates and spent nearly a million dollars on federal lobbying. That money was targeted to keep sentences high and fight the marijuana decriminalization movement.

Some funds went to more nefarious methods of keeping prisons packed and profitable. In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to over 17 years in federal prison for his role in a “cash for kids” scandal. Judge Michael Conahan admitted to charges of racketeering for accepting shares and cash from owners of a local for-profit prison. In return, the judge had closed the local county-owned juvenile detention center and started routing young offenders to the private prison, often for minor infractions.

Private prison groups defend their industry largely on the grounds of cost-cutting. Under the private prison model, counties and states pay per-day rates for prisoners locked in private detention centers. Industry spokespeople have long asserted that the profit motive allows them to keep costs low. However, a New York Times investigation found considerable doubt about that argument. When private prisons are profitable, it’s largely because they are able to turn away troubled prisoners, or those who require medical care.

With almost 25% of the world’s prison population, America hardly looks like the land of the free — but as long as there’s profit to be had, private prisons will keep the pressure on judges and legislatures to make sure that victimless crimes remain a fast-track to prison.

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