Despite the fact that the number of persons incarcerated in federal prisons is at a ten-year low, in February U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a Justice Department policy of phasing out the government’s use of private prisons. Sessions claimed the use of for-profit prisons was necessary “to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” This was news to the law enforcement community because the federal prison population has been on the decline since 2013. There are presently about 189,000 federal prisoners, of which around 21,000 are in private prisons.
Federal experience with private prisons has been much like that experienced by Idaho. That is,for-profit facilities have had more safety and security problems than government facilities. Let’s not forget the “gladiator school” scandal at the Idaho prison formerly operated by Corrections Corporation of America (now, CoreCivic, which is one of the federal contractors). The Idaho prison was understaffed and time-keeping records were substantially inflated. However, the company did not scrimp on campaign contributions. In sum, the private prison was a bad experience for our good state.
Perhaps Sessions’ rationale for embracing privately run prisons comes into better focus in light of his May 12 directive to federal prosecutors to throw the book at criminal defendants. His view is that mandatory minimum sentences should be levied against even low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, a policy that has been discredited in Idaho and a majority of other states. It resulted in ballooning prison populations and expenditures, without making communities safer.
I have to admit that I supported mandatory minimum sentences for drug kingpins during my tenure as Idaho Attorney General in the 1980s. However, Idaho and other states have come to realize that long mandatory sentences are not appropriate for every offender. They tie the hands of judges who are best positioned to tailor the appropriate punishment for the crimes committed by a particular defendant. And, while they do not reduce recidivism, they do needlessly inflict damage on the families of low-risk offenders. In 2014, Idaho adopted the Justice Reinvestment Act to provide for earlier release of low-level offenders, to provide greater supervision of those individuals to ensure their success, to reduce the number of repeat offenders, and to reduce the cost of Idaho’s prison program. The legislation had broad-based support and holds out great promise for success.
During the last Congress, bipartisan support was developing to implement similar sentencing reform on the federal level until then-Senator Sessions helped to derail the effort. Even our own Congressman Raul Labrador spoke in favor of reform. Now, it appears that AG Sessions intends to take us back to the bad old days of mass incarceration. This may be a boon to the private prison companies but it will be no favor to taxpayers. The new federal policy will not affect Idaho’s prison system directly but it may plant the idea that states need to follow the federal leader back to discredited incarceration practices.