A report by Common Cause, Democracy Behind Bars, alleges that political elections and monetary incentives increase incarceration rates and undermine democracy in America.
Common Cause is an organization dedicated to reducing the influence of special-interest money in politics.
According to Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the organization, the report is “an effort to build on Common Cause’s longstanding commitment to serve as a watchdog on government, defend and strengthen voting and civil rights and the ability for everyone to participate in our democracy.” The report claims that political forces that rely on special- interest campaign funds shape the modern criminal justice system.
For instance, “Since 1989, the two biggest for-profit prison companies in the U.S.— Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group—have spent more than $35 million on lobbying and campaign contributions,” according to the report.
During the 2016 presidential election, “the GEO Group donated $225,000 to a super PAC supporting then-candidate Donald Trump.”
According to its website, GEO Group manages “approximately 75,000 beds in 71 correctional and detention facilities…. [and] provides services on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshal Services, and [the] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
The Common Cause report says that “65 percent of private prison contracts have ‘occupancy guarantee’ clauses, [which function as] promises by the state that a specific number of people will be housed there.”
Therefore, the report alleges, politicians promote tough-on-crime policies to generate profits for campaign contributors.
Currently, 5.2 million people nationwide are supported by prison facility jobs, at a $182 billion annual cost to taxpayers, the report said.
Underfunded police departments that rely on federal grants are obligated to increase the number of arrests in order to qualify for grant money.
For instance, according to the report, “federal support frequently is determined by arrest statistics and the value of confiscated contraband, which pressures police to arrest more low-level offenders.”
“SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics are disproportionately used against Black and Latino people…suspected of low-level drug dealing.”
Balko also cites an ACLU 2015 study that examined four cities in New Jersey, which showed that “Black people were 2.6 to 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than White people for low-level offenses.”
According to Common Cause, felony convictions further undermine democracy because felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect poor, Black and other minority communities.
Common Cause argues that former felons are expected to be good productive citizens while not allowed to participate in the democratic process.
Most states have procedures to regain voting rights after completing probation or parole periods, but 12 states bar former felons from ever voting, the report said.
According to Common Cause, for these reasons, “A society that unjustly criminalizes and imprisons so many people, devastating our families and communities, and disproportionately targeting people of color and those impacted by poverty for policing and punishment, is not a society living up to its claim that everyone’s voice matters.”