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The Politics of Incarceration Will Have to Change When the Money Runs Out

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Reducing incarceration rates is a hot topic this month as state governments desperately seek to decrease spending. It's an important and encouraging trend, but one that gets predictably sidelined when certain interests exert malicious influence over the process. This example from Indiana pretty much sums it up:


A criminal justice reform bill that Gov. Mitch Daniels hoped would save more than $1 billion by reducing the number of people held in prison is headed to the Senate floor.

But the bill, approved 8-2 by a Senate committee Monday, has changed so much because of pressure from prosecutors that it's no longer clear whether it will save any money in the long term. [Indianapolis Star]

It should come as a surprise to no one that prosecutors -- who've worked tirelessly to create this problem -- would vigorously oppose any effort to fix it. Their livelihood revolves around the concept that it's good to have lots of people locked up, and that we're lucky to have these bankruptcy-inducing incarceration costs because if we didn't, it would mean all those bad people were still on the streets forcing us to buy drugs from them.

Still, it's generally getting easier for our political culture to agree in principle with the notion that we're keeping far too many people behind bars at far too great a cost. That much is obvious, but the path that brought us here has also resulted in a massive criminal justice infrastructure that's become self-aware and lobbies aggressively on its own behalf. Accordingly, we've now entered a bizarre debate in which almost everyone feigns agreement about what must be done, but they just aren't actually doing it.

Obama's federal drug control budget maintains a Bush-era disparity devoting nearly twice as many resources to punishment as it does for treatment and prevention, despite his saying less than three weeks ago that, “We have to think more about drugs as a public health problem," which requires "shifting resources." [LEAP]

It's a stark hypocrisy, made possible in part by the fact that Obama's rhetoric of reform inevitably rings louder in the press than the reality of boring budgetary figures. For all the progress that's been made towards popularizing the idea that our jails aren't the best place for many who currently reside there, it's impossible to carve out cost-savings without shrinking the output of the factory that our criminal justice system has become. This requires admitting that certain practices are harmful, or at least unnecessary, and ultimately eliminating jobs right and left within a powerful industry that will threaten the public with rape and murder if they don’t get their way.

For better or worse, real progress towards resolving this enormous mess will take place not because politicians and prison profiteers voluntarily admit the error of their ways. It will happen when there literally exists no other option. When the inevitability of ever-increasing, plainly unsustainable incarceration costs becomes simply unbearable, the alternative approaches to which we've paid considerable lip service over the years will finally be given a chance to deliver on their promise. That's what has to happen, and when it does, even the most self-interested scumbags in this debate will eventually be found claiming disingenuously that they supported reform all along.

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Go read It can't happen here

Think it can't happen here? A very possible scenario is that once the money runs out prisons will become "work camps" the government will have slave labor to replace the working class, increase incarceration and decrease the standards for prisoners living. The middle class will be mostly guards and the rich will continue to get richer. Once governments start to lose money and begin to collapse, they get desperate and will begin to campaign under catch phrases that try to capture some ambiguous "value" that no rational person would agree with. Remember some examples that have been used to marginalize and demonize? "Just say no". "Above the influence". "Drugs are bad". "Blame the Jews". "We need to promote traditional American family values". 

If the government picks the right slogans and say the same thing over and over, then the religious right and those who would sacrifice personal freedom for the promise of safety will go along with whatever the government decides. I think we forget this country is full of selfish egoists who profit at the expense of others and ethnocentric oppressors who believe their lifestyle is the only correct. They think that all other lifestyles are sinful if not criminal.


Oddly enough, do they count our soldiers being incarcerated here in the U.S. for so called "Crimes during Combat"? What about those combat veterans coming back, afflicted with PTSD and/or TBI ?

If our Government won't protect our own soldiers and veterans, what makes you think YOU are safe?

Slave Labor

Along the border law enforcement and the prison industry go hand in hand done

the blood-slick lane of the border drug war. In many families one brother is in law enforcement, or the prison industry and another brother or cousin is in the extra-official drug industry. Of course, putting people in the hoose-gow (i.e jail) for real crimes, helps the economy and lubricates the engines of social order.

Incarcerating millions for made up or relatively innocuous actions can only be labeled parasitic.

The slave labor has already started in private prisons 

As the money drains out, more and more slave prison labor will be called for.

Who will see through it and who won't

That is the question


i fear that the fears raised

i fear that the fears raised by previous comments to the effect that prison population may actually rise as governments go bankrupt are valid. prison labor is slave labor. nothing is more profitable to those in power.

Luv it! ..

They do not have enough time, $ or resources to win this "War on drugs", It's a 9-5 thing for them, then they go home to their families & homes bought and supported by the same dirty $ they claim to hate so much, time to get rid of the DEA for good and we all know how much they love "using" the same drugs they put us all in jail for, like the CIA & cocaine & The US military using MDMA for PTSD.

"Fuck 'em and their law"....

Trying to ruin everything?

The policies are so ass backwards, it's like they want to waste money and fuck everything up. They're so damn stubborn, I wouldn't be surprised if they do change the politics of incarceration - and start saving money and space by shooting drug offenders on sight.


hell, it seems more likely than them changing their minds.

losing battle

i was just incarcerated for 29 months state prison for a non Violent drug offense and a child rapist of a 13 yr old girl got 11 to 23 months in county jail. another one indecent sexual assult of person less than 13 yrs old got 3 years probation!!!

thats crazy!! the "war" on drugs is a joke and this all was started by nixon and finished off by reagan with the sentecing act of 1984 i believe and the "just say no" campaign


idiots!! as taxpayers demand to be heard on this issue contact, hell, stalk your state reps!!


I think they should give up and accept that we are going to use Maijuana NO matter what they say!!!!

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