America jails more people than any other country in the world – more than Russia, more than China. In fact, we lock up 7 times more people now than we did in 1970, even though crime rates are decreasing. And as divided as our nation is on most issues, this isn’t one of them – 91% of Americans think the system needs to be fixed. But still nothing changes, why?

Money.

America’s criminal justice system has become a for-profit business. Let’s just look at private prisons, which literally make money from locking people up.

In 2014, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America (which now does business as CoreCivic), shareholder report stated:

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, …any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

Translation? They have a vested interest in keeping their prisons stocked – with people. And they’re doing it: by lobbying our government for longer sentences, stricter laws and tougher enforcement. 

In the last 10 years, the private prison industry has spent $64 million lobbying our elected officials. This year alone, they’ll make $6 billion in revenue –  for every dollar they spent signing backdoor deals, they made more than $93 back. That’s like trading a snickers bar for a lobster dinner with a heaping side of caviar.

And we, the American people, are paying for it with our tax money.

But private prisons aren’t the only business making money from jailing Americans. Major corporations use inmates as virtually free labor. Remember the BP oil spill? They made inmates clean it up. They paid the prisoners pennies on the dollar and then qualified for a $2,400 tax kick back for each and every inmate they used.

The worst part: special interests helped to write the laws that created these programs.

And, it’s not just for-profit prisons that are creating this cycle. Many judges are elected by voters, and they’ve been shown to give harsher sentences as they get closer to election day. In recent years, it’s been shown that 50-60% of political donations for key judicial positions come from lawyers, lobbyists and business interests.

As hopeless as this all sounds, it is possible to fix these problems, and so many others that can all be traced back to our corrupt political system.

We won’t fix the criminal justice system until we end the corruption that’s allowing the status quo to continue. That means banning gifts from lobbyists to politicians, closing the revolving door between Congress and industry, and enfranchising voters, so politicians actually represent us.

About Mei Seva
Mei’s work involves researching, writing, project managing, and more. She is passionate about democracy reform and human rights work, and is excited to combine her love of advocacy and art at RepresentUs. Mei received her B.A. from Hampshire College, and her studies explored peace and conflict issues through an interdisciplinary method. Her written work has mainly focused on democratic uprisings and revolutions, with a focus on women’s participation in these movements. She is also an artist specializing in photography and videography.
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