Bernie Sanders on private prisons: 'Justice is not for sale'

Today, the Democratic candidate will introduce a bill that, if passed, would eliminate for-profit prisons, expanding a national conversation on social justice, law enforcement, and prison reform. 

Jose Luis Magana/ AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a civil rights rally at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Sanders will introduce a bill to eliminate for-profit prisons, expanding a renewed national debate on social justice and prison reform.

On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vt. is set to introduce the “Justice Is Not For Sale” Act on Capitol Hill, which would ban a private prison industry he accuses of creating a “perverse incentive” to keep jails filled.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Raul Manuel Grijalva (D) of Ariz., calls for federal, state, and local governments to ban privately run prisons within three years, to reduce high fees for prisoner services such as phone calls, and to reinstate a federal parole system, which was eliminated as part of ‘tough on crime’ efforts in the 1980s, The Washington Post reports. The bill also seeks to reduce the number of immigrants held in detention centers, many of which are privately-managed, by eliminating the current minimum quota of housing 34,000 people each day.

Calling the private prison industry “disgraceful,” and “morally repugnant,” Sanders’ campaign website says “the measure of success for law enforcement should not be how many people get locked up.” 

Private prisons, originally created to lower costs and reduce dangerous overcrowding in public facilities, now house 19 percent of federal prisoners, fueling a $5 billion industry that has quickly become a hot “recession resistant” investment.

Reform advocates allege that the industry, dominated by The GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, reduces the motivation to rehabilitate prisoners because companies make a profit by keeping them imprisoned. 

A University of Wisconsin study released this spring found that private prison inmates often serve longer sentences, yet are just as likely to recidivate as those in public prisons. 

As researcher Anita Mukherjee highlighted, these longer sentences drive up private prisons’ costs, undermining claims that they save taxpayers money, which is ostensibly the industry’s core purpose. Other analyses have also cast doubt on their cost-saving ability, particularly since state contacts may have to guarantee a certain number of prisoners to their private providers. 

Calling to abolish the industry, Sanders says:

We need to end the tragic reality that the United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth, and that the people being incarcerated are disproportionately black and Hispanic. We need to take a hard look at why the rate of recidivism in this country is so high and why we are not developing successful paths back to civil society for those who serve prison time.

By adding a specific plan to the national conversation on law enforcement, racial bias, and prison reform, the bill may help Sanders make inroads with voting demographics he has struggled to reach as an Independent senator from a small, nearly entirely white state.

Campaigning in South Carolina beside intellectual and civil rights activist Cornel West last week, Sanders stressed investing in “jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.” Hillary Clinton, who enjoys far more recognition and support from African-American voters, has also criticized mass incarceration, but has yet to propose a specific reform plan.

Meanwhile, an opinion piece in Al Jazeera reports that Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have supported, or accepted support from, the private prison industry. 

Although a ban on private prisons would face an uphill battle in Congress, The Christian Science Monitor reports that other bipartisan prison reform bills are likely to pass this fall, as both parties recognize new research casting doubt on the assumption that tough sentencing laws result in lower crime rates.

Thanks to three-strike laws and minimum sentencing requirements instituted in the 1980s and 1990s, the prison population has more than quadrupled over the past few decades; more than 1 percent of Americans are now behind bars.

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