On the surface, it would seem that most public safety agencies have a duty and special interest to drive down crime rates and reduce the number of individuals cycling through the prison system.
However, our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers recognize that may be less and less the case, as the proliferation of the for-profit prison marches on.
It’s an alternative to which many cash-strapped counties and states have turned over the last several years, particularly at the height of the Great Recession. It seemed like a good deal: These prison companies would buy and operate prisons in a 20-year contract that would essentially absolve the local government of responsibility and liability during the term of the contract.
But here’s the catch: Those contracts require a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate (or thereabouts). What that means is that if at any point during those 20 years, the prison population dips below 90 percent capacity, the county (or state) has to pay to cover the cost of unused beds.
This has been referred to as a “low-crime tax,” wherein taxpayers are effectively penalized when crime rates fall.
This results in an incentive for police, prosecutors and legislators to maintain large prison populations.
A policy like this runs counter to general theories of crime reduction, as well as those explicitly spelled out recently by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He recently announced a number of initiatives designed to reduce federal prison rosters, with the acknowledgment that not only were such facilities overcrowded, but vastly disproportionately so with African Americans.
Holder was very clear in his indication that minimum mandatory sentencing not only contributes to overcrowding issues, but also to the destruction of lives and the fraying of communities – not to mention it does little to drive down actual crime rates. This is especially true when you consider that the majority of prisoners in both federal and state prisons are there primarily for drug-related offenses, many of those non-violent.
And yet, at hundreds of state-level facilities, we have strong incentive to keep those jails and prisons filled with warm bodies.
In Alabama, these facilities have been the subject of harsh scrutiny. In July of last year, four residents in Harpersville won a civil lawsuit against Judicial Correctional Services operating the Shelby County Jail. The inmates, who were low-income, alleged they were routinely denied access to adequate council, not advised of their constitutional rights and were burdened with outrageously high fines and bond rates that they had no way of paying.
In his five-page decision in Burdette v. Harpersville, Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Hub Harrington tore into the defendants, saying that the operation “could reasonably be characterized” as a debtor’s prison.
The facility had been given the authority to place individuals on “probation” when they weren’t able to pay their fines. In some cases, these were additional $35-a-day charges, and indigent defendants had no way to pay them. Then at a certain point, the private correctional facility would forward the case back to court and the individual would be accused of “probation violations.”
The number of private prisons in Alabama isn’t as high as in other states, but it is a growing problem nonetheless, providing all the more incentive for you to invest in an experienced defense lawyer.