It took years to build bipartisan momentum for criminal justice and prison reform – and it looked like the time had finally come. Public opinion was there. The political will was there.
Then, in just a few short weeks, momentum evaporated.
So what caused the sudden change? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t a shift in public opinion. But four political donations from private prison companies totaling $725,000 may have had something to do with it.
Americans still support prison reform
America’s system of law and order has faced mounting scrutiny in recent years. Complaints of police violence and unfair drug crime sentencing have prompted well-publicized efforts to change our justice system.
As public awareness about sentencing problems and private prisons grew, Americans across the political spectrum were poised to support two criminal justice reforms: shifting away from the use of private prisons and reducing long prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
There are a lot of problems people have identified with our prison system – and one of the top issues people zeroed in on is for-profit prisons. Of the roughly 188,000 federal prisoners, 11 percent are held in “privately-managed facilities,” which require prisoners to work for an average of 93 cents per hour and turn a profit.
And calls for closing private prisons weren’t just coming from the public: the Justice Department advised the Bureau of Prisons to curtail or end its use of private prisons in an August 2016 memo.
There were also seeds of change in Washington for sentencing reform. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle came together to back a sentencing reform measure, led in the Senate by Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Dick Durbin. And in the 2016 vice presidential debate, then-Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine articulated a need for criminal justice reform.
At this point, it looked like criminal justice reform would actually happen. But neither of the reforms that had gained popularity have passed.
Why? Well, as we’ve seen before, public opinion doesn’t always influence policy nearly as much as special interests do.
Stalled reforms and major donations
So how does a popular, bipartisan effort fail? It hits a special-interest-sized brick wall.
Sentencing reform failed in the Senate, even though it had support across the political spectrum – including Speaker Paul Ryan’s. But as Carl Hulse noted in The New York Times, the energy around President Trump’s campaign and disagreements among Senate Republicans stalled and eventually buried the legislation.
For many, it was disheartening to watch the Senate fail to finalize reform goals shared across the aisle because of small differences in opinion on policy. But for all Americans, it is likely troublesome that when the Trump administration put the nail in the coffin, it was after $725,000 had been donated to Trump’s election causes – $225,000 of which was likely illegal.
On the day the Obama Justice Department declared that it would move away from private prisons, the stock price of GEO Group – one of largest private prison companies in the country – dropped 40%. The very next day, GEO Group gave $100,000 to a Super PAC supporting President Trump’s campaign. Then, a few days before the election, GEO Group contributed another $125,000. Because GEO Group receives federal contracts, and because the law prohibits federal contractors from making campaign contributions, these two donations were likely in violation of the law. Both of these donations are now at the center of a federal lawsuit filed by the Campaign Legal Center, whose president is a former Republican chair of the Federal Elections Commission.
But the money didn’t stop there. When Trump won, GEO Group then gave $250,000 to the president-elect’s inauguration committee. The Corrections Corporation of America, another private prison company, also chipped in $250,000.
Then there’s also the revolving door between the federal government and lobbying firms. As reported in The Nation, two former aides to Jeff Sessions – President Trump’s pick for Attorney General – now lobby on behalf of the GEO Group.
As head of the Justice Department, Sessions has a crucial role in determining the federal government’s criminal justice policies. And he didn’t waste much time at all in making decisions that will likely net private prison companies millions of dollars. In February, Sessions issued an order to again allow private prisons at the federal level, meaning that private prison companies will likely make a mint off of detaining those prisoners.
On the day the Obama administration announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons, GEO Group’s stock fell 40%, and it surged back the day after Trump was elected. Today, GEO Group is trading 2.5 times higher than it was even then.
When a sensible policy change supported by both major players in both parties causes the stock of a private prison company to drop, and when that company makes a major – and likely illegal – campaign contribution the next day, how do we expect Americans to view their government? When that contribution leads to a string of more contributions and ends in a favorable result for the company, should Americans not feel that special interests are in charge?
The only way to drain the swamp, then, is to stop corruption. Until then, the private prison industry can keep stalling reform long after Jeff Sessions is retired.