US Prison Populations Drop, But Not For Long

The US prison population has dropped by a record-setting amount according to the annual report released by the US Department of Justice. In 2015, the number of federal and state inmates was down by 2.3%, or roughly 35,500 from 2014--the biggest drop since 1978. Around one in 37 Americans was under some form of correctional supervision in 2015 as well, the lowest reported rate since 1994, while overall crime continued to drop.

Are we committing fewer crimes? There are 6.7 million adults in jail, prison, on parole or probation. Around 2.2 million were in local jails or in prisons, which is 51,000 fewer than the previous year. But the US still has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

Much of this decrease can be attributed to the 40% decline in federal inmate populations, linked to one-time early releases of 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders in late 2015 as well as a fall in prison sentences lasting more than one year. President Barack Obama also stepped in to shorten the sentences of 1,176 federal inmates.

At the state level, reform has been substantial. In California, a ballot initiative, Proposition 47, in 2014 gave certain nonviolent offenders an opportunity to reduce their felony convictions to misdemeanors. In Indiana, prisoners with shorter sentences and good time credit were diverted from state prison to local jail facilities. Other states like New York, New Jersey, Mississippi and Georgia enacted changes to help reduce prison populations, like diverting drug offenders, and those suffering from mental illness, into treatment instead of jail.

Say goodbye to all of this progress come Jan 20th.

Data for this report is released almost one year after the date it was compiled, so it is difficult to say if the trend continued for 2016. But President-elect Trump ran his successful campaign on a “law and order” premise, with constant threats of charging and jailing those who- at least according to him- deserved it. Yusef Shakur, a Detroit community organizer who spent several years in Michigan State Prisons, agrees. “The prison industrial complex has found the right person to feed it,” Shakur said following the election. “Trump is of the same cloth as Reagan, Bush and Nixon. I expect the worst in terms of patterns of repression.”

Trump’s proposed measures are well-known: construct a wall along the Mexican border, set up a registry for Muslims, expand the scope for private prisons, restore stop-and-frisk policing. It’s vastly different from our outgoing administration. With Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, reformers were provided wiggle room to craft and pass legislation to win policy changes. But it’s safe to say this will no longer be the case under Trump’s regime.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is already investigating a complaint alleging that the GEO Group violated a federal ban on political contributions by government contractors. GEO Group is one of the largest private prison operators in the US, operating 64 detention centers with more than 75,000 beds. GEO Group reported total revenues of $1.84 billion last year, the majority of that derived from contracts to house inmates for states and the federal government. The complaint accuses GEO Group of using one of its subsidiaries, GEO Corrections Holding Inc., to make more than $225,000 worth of illegal contributions to Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump super PAC.

As Trump’s intelligence doesn’t seem to understand the most basic definition of conflict of interests, it’s safe to say he will be favoring the GEO Group in the future. Just take a look at his cabinet appointments, chocked full of his donors who have contributed almost $12 million to his campaign and party. It stands to reason that the GEO Group was looking to curry favor with the Trump administration for their personal interests. The first donation (yes, there was more than one) from the GEO subsidiary came one day after the Justice Department announced plans to phase out the use of privately run federal prisons because they “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as government-run institutions, and “do not save substantially on costs.” GEO’s stock plunged almost 40% following that announcement. However, after Trump’s victory, GEO’s stock price returned to its peak 2016 value.

According to spokesperson Pablo Paez, the donation was made one day prior to the DOJ announcement on Aug 18, even going so far as to show Vice News a photo of their check made out to the super PAC dated Aug 17. However, he refused to make it publicly available for unspecified “security reasons.” Compared to Hillary Clinton’s vow to ban private prisons, Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric, and pledge to deport undocumented workers and immigrants were viewed as favorable to the industry. According to the Daily Wire, in 2015:

  • There were 68.57 illegal aliens imprisoned for every 100,000 illegals in Arizona, compared to 54.06 citizens and legal noncitizens imprisoned for every 100,000 citizens and legal noncitizens.
  • There were 97.2 illegals imprisoned for every 100,000 illegals in California, compared to 74.1 citizens and legal noncitizens imprisoned per 100,000 citizen and legal noncitizens.
  • There were 54.85 illegals imprisoned for every 100,00 illegals in Florida, compared to 67.8 legal immigrants imprisoned for every 100,000 legal immigrants.
  • There were 168.75 illegals imprisoned for every 100,000 illegals in New York, compared to 48.12 legal immigrants imprisoned for every 100,000 legal immigrants.
  • There were 54.54 illegals imprisoned for every 100,000 illegals in Texas, compared to 65.43 legal immigrants

So GEO Group stands to make a shit ton of money with Trump in office, especially with Trump's transition team stacked with privatization enthusiasts.

The appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General shades the entire prison system in an even darker light. Although it’s been talked to death, the point about Sessions’ disqualification in 1986 from a judgeship is incredibly disturbing. I don’t mind beating that fact to death, because Sessions’ Ku Klux Klan sympathies create an unprecedented level of concern over having him as attorney general. Over the years, he has also campaigned militantly against anything that involved a hint of liberal reform in Congress. He opposed limitations of asset forfeiture to police, the use of consent decrees and the moderation of mandatory minimum sentences, despite Republican support for reevaluating these and continuing to reform the criminal justice system. Being such a close advisor to Trump, his hatred of immigrants is almost a given. Sessions’ office issued a 25-page report on immigration policy in 2015, blaming immigrants for job losses and declines in wages. He’s opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate in the past two decades that included any sort of path to citizenship for immigrants, as well as fighting against legal immigration for guest worker programs and visa programs for foreigners. He even voted against an amendment banning “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners.” Sessions has been a consistent proponent of maximum punishments for all drug offenses, even stating in a Senate hearing in April that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Combine that with Trump’s outspoken claims that Obama’s use of clemency was letting a lot of “bad dudes” back onto the streets, working hand-in-hand with the GEO Group will only compound an influx in prison populations in the coming years.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prominent scholar, activist and prison abolitionist, spoke about the incoming Trump administration: “We can expect more power to police, more police and fewer protections against violations of the constitution concerning criminalization.”

I’m not engaging in a slippery slope argument here. Trump and his administration will drastically change the landscape of our justice department and system. They’ll be working to rollback any advances made during the last eight years. Trump’s camp will probably try to highlight crime problems to shift attention away from his lack of understanding of how to improve structural economic issues. Ultimately, prison populations will grow to satisfy his cabinet’s ultra-conservative, outdated perspectives, benefit his campaign and party donors, and distract from Trump’s failure to actually change anything in DC.

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