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Bernie Sanders has a ballsy new plan to kill all of the US government's private prison and detention center contracts within three years in a bid to curb the country's soaring mass incarceration rate. But with a powerful lobbying presence and backing from several key political figures, experts and advocates say the private prison industry won't be taken down so easily.
Last week, the Vermont senator and 2016 presidential hopeful announced his co-sponsorship of the Justice is Not For Sale Act, staking a strong position on what he's called a "broken" criminal justice system. That system, he says, is riddled with corporate greed and rewards private prisons with incentives to keep beds full rather than reduce recidivism and promote social welfare.
"We need to start treating prisoners like human beings," Sanders said at a press conference announcing the legislation. "Private companies should not be profiting from their incarceration. Our emphasis must be on rehabilitation, not incarceration and longer prison sentences."
Candidates from both parties have pegged criminal justice as a hot button issue in the lead up to 2016. This bill instantly puts Sanders ahead of the pack, alongside Republican Senator Rand Paul, who co-sponsored the REDEEM Act earlier this year to ease a system overburdened with nonviolent drug offenders.
'We need to start treating prisoners like human beings. Private companies should not be profiting from their incarceration.'
But though Republicans and Democrats mostly agree that the system needs to be overhauled, Sanders may have saddled himself with an impossible task in his attempt to bridge the gap between ideas and actual reform, said Inimai Chettiar, justice program director at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.
"[Sanders is] trying to take a bold position, but [the Act is] not going to pass, especially not in this Congress," Chettiar said. "Even though there's a left-right consensus on criminal justice reform, a lot of folks on the right still very much embrace private prisons, which have a lot of lobbying power, so politically, it's not a viable reform."
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Even as Sanders unveiled the bill, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it had awarded its new family detention case program to a subsidiary of the GEO Group, one of the two biggest for-profit prison companies in the US. The other is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Together, the companies generate $3.2 billion in annual revenue.
This profit comes largely from increased US prison populations, which more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. A large chunk of revenue also came from federal immigration detention centers, according to an April report by Grassroots Leadership. The same study noted that between 2008 and 2010, CCA and GEO spent $11 million lobbying on immigration issues, including efforts to target the Congressional DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the "bed quota," which requires ICE to keep 34,000 immigrants in detention at any given time.
"It's deeply ironic that on the day that that bill was introduced, we see the continued expansion of the role of private prison companies in a different and new form," said Mary Small, policy director for the Detention Watch Network, a coalition of advocacy group rallying on immigrant detention and deportation issues.
New provisions in the Justice is Not For Sale Act would do away with the bed quota, which Sanders said was "costly and harmful."
Small said that while she was "encouraged" by the plan as a "common sense solution" to the "explosive growth of immigration detention," she noted that many of the proposed changes for detention centers are already within reach of the current administration, and could be achieved without Congressional approval.
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"Government could begin winding down the contracts and not renew them starting today," said Small. "Who they choose to contract with is a discretionary choice, and given the rights abuses that we've routinely seen — not exclusively in private run facilities, there's certainly abuses in publicly run facilities as well — given those documented abuses, the government could begin terminating those contracts right now."
Inaction on Capitol Hill has been fueled by a "mistaken and pervasive sense that it is somehow less expensive to privatize," despite research that suggests the opposite, Small said. Programs that offer alternatives to immigrant detention cost an average $22 per person per day, compared to $95 per day to keep the same low-risk, non-violent offenders behind bars, according to Congressional findings.
The Sanders campaign estimates that such alternatives could ultimately save taxpayers over $5 million per day, or roughly $1.4 billion per year.
Chettiar said that instead of doing away with privatization, another option could be reversing the incentives for private corporations — like adding a so-called "social impact bonds" in contracts so that the company is only paid if they reduce the recidivism rate.
"Adding social impact bonds to contracts would cause companies to increase prison conditions, increase education, treatment, programming and across the board have more functioning, humane and effective prisons," Chettiar said. "I think that would be more politically viable because many folks on the ground have said that the perverse incentives are the root of the problem, not privatization itself."
Related: Why are there up to 120,000 innocent people in US prisons?
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields