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‘High Quality Real Estate Business’

I'm too embarrassed to tell you about all of the violent revenge fantasies I played out in my mind after my car was broken into two weeks ago. Even being the victim of petty crime was enough to trigger an inexplicable urge for retribution.

But in my more reflective moments, I realize that kind of emotional response -- which has also characterized the broader debate on the politics of crime fighting -- is about as productive as shoveling snow in a blizzard.

Last week, the Congressional Research Service published a report on the "Economic Impacts of Prison Growth," providing a useful check on the spirit of vengeance that has dominated penal politics going back to former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's mandatory sentencing laws in the state of New York in 1973.

"The U.S. corrections system has gone through an unprecedented expansion during the last few decades with a more than 400% jump in the prison population and a corresponding boom in the prison construction. At the end of 2008, 2.3 million adults were in state, local, or federal custody, with another $5.1 million on probation or parole...Globally, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners."

What's fueled the growth, the report says, is "tough drug enforcement, stringent sentencing laws, and high rates of recidivism."

Who cares? Well, as the report goes on to point out, this "historic, sustained rise in incarceration has broad implications, not just for the criminal justice system, but for the larger economy."

The U.S. prison industry now directly employs about 777,000 people and the Labor Department expects the prison labor market to grow 9% by 2018, accompanied by a projected 16% increase in the number of parole and probation officers. "By comparison, there were 880,000 workers employed in the entire U.S. auto manufacturing sector."

Of course, there's a host of moral and social dilemmas created by high rates of imprisonment -- "increased income inequality and more concentrated poverty" and "the fact that African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be incarcerated," for starters.


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But whatever you may think about the plight of the incarcerated and their families, what no one concerned about budgets can ignore is the growing cost. In 2008 alone, taxpayers spent $68.7 billion to feed, clothe, house and provide Supreme Court affirmed medical care for prisoners -- a 688% increase since 1982. In fact, "during the past three decades correctional spending has risen nearly twice as fast as state spending on education, health care, and social service programs."

Because of these costs, CRS observes, "the corrections sector is in stress as states seek to reduce prison populations and rein in costs." It's gotten to the point where Gov. Schwarzenegger has suggested amending the California state constitution to keep prison spending from exceeding spending on higher education.

The alarming "cost-containment" trend of the past few decades has been to privatize prisons, despite studies that have called into question whether for-profit prisons are actually more cost-effective, even as they may stifle economic development in areas where they are located; to say nothing of what cost-cutting means for the work environment of correctional officers and the living conditions of inmates.

Right now, there are two bills in the Senate and three in the House relating to prison reform, including one of the more far-reaching proposals (S. 714) that would establish a commission to "review all areas of federal and state criminal justice costs, practices and policies" and "make recommendations for changes in policies and laws to address (the) findings."

Even though I'd love to flog whoever broke into my car, it's that kind of mind-set that got us into this police-state mess. So as Congress gets ready to deal with rising prison costs and incarceration rates, it wouldn't be a bad idea to inject a dose of Karl Menninger common sense.

In his book "The Crime of Punishment" Menninger noted that most prisoners will eventually be released and if we focus on retribution but forget about rehabilitation, the only thing we're doing is ensuring more future crime victims by taking people with problems, making them worse, and then turning them loose on an unsuspecting public.

You make think that's "soft on crime" or that punishment is a necessary deterrent but then you'd have to explain how nearly four decades of "get tough" policies haven't deterred recidivism.

If having the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world bothers you, bother Congress and the letters-to-the-editor page about it. If you're a scoundrel, invest in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest private prison firm who reported $1.6 billion in revenues last year, up 32 percent from 2002. Pershing Square Capital Management, a prominent New York-based hedge fund, bought 9.5% share in CCA and presented it to investors as a "high quality real estate business."

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Sean Gonsalves

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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