USDA Funded Prisons = Rural Development?

It is no secret that the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In fact, if we treat individual states as countries and compare them to the rest of the world, the top thirty spots would be held by individual states, even the lowest ranked state ends up 58th in the world, and the other eight countries in that list are not exactly countries that have shining human rights reputations: El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Thailand, Rawanda, Russia, Panama, Coast Rica, and Brazil. This is a rather authoritarian group of countries that experience high levels of violent crime. In fact, El Salvador, Russia, Panama, and Brazil all have murder rates that are double that of the United States, and yet the US incarcerates more people.

According to the Bureau of Prison (BOP) statistics, the 46.1% of individuals incarcerated by the state are charged with “drug offenses,” followed distantly by “weapons, explosives and arson” at 17.9%, and in third place making up 9% of the incarcerated population are “sex offenses.” What is curious about this list is that each one of these categories undoubtedly holds a percentage of non-violent criminals: individuals using drugs, someone with an “illegal” gun, or those engaging in prostitution or otherwise consensual sex. In fact, the first category of crimes the BOP lists that consists solely of crimes with an apparent victim is “extortion, fraud, and bribery” with 6.4% of the population.

When we see that we are locking up a disproportionate amount of victimless drug crimes, as well as, other potentially non-violent crimes and that our incarceration rate outpaces the rest of the world (including all sorts of third world “shit holes”), we have to wonder, just what is going on. There is any number of reasons out there as to why we have such a high incarceration rate with some folks blaming it on a lack of present day education, and others seeing it as a throwback to our Puritan roots.

But when it is all distilled down, we see that our penal system is not one of correction, but one of corporatism and monopolistic force, backed up by the long arm of the law, not just by creating a War on Drugs and implementing draconian sentences, but also incentivizing incarceration by awarding contracts and providing funds to build new and bigger prisons.

In 1972, under President Nixon, the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (Con Act) was passed as a sort of safety net for areas dependent on agriculture, timber, mining, and other rural economies that were starting to lag. Since 1996, starting under President Bill Clinton, the Con Act has lended over $360 million to build prisons in rural areas, as they consider the construction of a prison as “rural development.” On the surface, this may seem well intended: we will always have prisoners, prisoners don’t stop during recessions, a prison can create numerous jobs - especially considering second tier businesses needed to support the demands of prison workers, but of course, this is only surface level. Many prison towns that have received federal money to build prisons have dealt with negative ramifications, some have actually lost money, and once a town becomes a prison town, it is near impossible to go back; there is no upgrading from a prison town to a web development town, or a tourist town. It seems that no matter what side of the prison system an entity gets involved with, there is no complete breaking free.

While many of these prisons are touted as being “private prisons,” the fact remains that the money to build the prisons is provided by the federal government and leaves little room for negotiation when it comes to policies that might actually help these prison-towns prosper. A prison is typically built with the idea that it will provide x-number of jobs, but once construction has been finished residents quickly realize that a good proportion of those jobs will be going to individuals already working for the prison firm and often go to non-residents, and even in those jobs that are actually created, there is a high level of turnover, and with the massive loan that the town and state needs to pay back, there is little recourse.

Unfortunately, even in areas where prisons do create economic development, many problems still arise, both political and moral. While it may be changing, when the census is taken, the prison population is included, creating a skewed view of the voting population (as prisoners do not vote) when it comes time to redraw districts and award electoral votes, especially considering that many of these prisoners do not come from the rural towns they are serving time in, or sometimes, even the same state. This creates political incentive for governors and congressmen to advocate for these federally funded prisons and keep beds filled, especially in areas that typically vote one way or the other. There has been some effort to change this, but it seems to be a slow going process.
Really, though, the biggest problem with our current model is the moral dilemma it places on areas that have become home to federally funded, corporatist prisons: empty beds do not pay. Many times, in fact, states will be on a contract that regulates prison occupancy, so now these rural communities that took federal loans through the Con Act are not only responsible for paying them back, but they are also responsible for keeping incarceration high. This incentivizes incarceration rates for all involved in the prison system, from police officers to prosecutors to probation boards. Unfortunately, this is not all conjecture as we have seen it happen with judges being indicted for racketeering.

And yet, despite having the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite having contracts with the State that regulate occupancy, despite a fading war on marijuana, despite the country being hopelessly in debt, despite politicians’ inability to pass a budget, the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act continues to dole out funds from the USDA budget to governors and towns advocating for bigger prisons. This is not rural development. These are not private prisons. They are prisons funded and regulated and incentivized by the Federal Government.

Defund Gangs and Lower Gun Violence: Decriminalize Victimless Crimes

Disclaimer: It is incredibly hard to find actual statistics about gang related gun violence. This is due to the way data is collected on gang crime. From the National Gang Center: “An additional concern is the varying methods by which homicides are classified as “gang-related.” The most commonly used is the “member-based” approach, in which a homicide is classified as gang-related if the victim was and/or the perpetrator is a gang member. Some agencies also utilize a more restrictive classification method called the “motive-based” approach, which involves substantiating that the crime furthers the interests of the entire gang.” Also, consider that no politician or sheriff wants to admit they have a gang-problem, especially when it comes time for re-election.

There is no doubt gun violence in the United States is an issue. Each year tens of thousands of people are killed, wounded, or assaulted by a gun. And this number could be even higher as the number of assaults is most likely under reported. We can look at this rash of violence and say the tool is the problem or we can look at reasons why this violence happens, and try to come up with more long term solutions.

Depending on what source you use, anywhere from 13-80% of gun crime is gang related, and this number is most likely higher as gang violence is often under reported due to gang related crimes receiving “enhanced” sentences. So what does that mean? If we target gang violence, our violent gun crime stats will go down and those innocents who die in gang warfare as collateral damage will no doubt be spared. But how do we target gangs? We can continue to do as we have: create gang task forces, arrest gang members and put them in jail. The recidivism rate of gang members is around 80%, so obviously incarceration isn’t much of a deterrent, and in actuality, probably cements gang affiliation. Maybe if the task force is lucky, they will net the big fish and cut the head off of the snake. Of course, if there is anything we have learned from the drug cartels and terrorist organizations in the Middle East, it is that eliminating the leader only creates a power vacuum in which more violence occurs between members as they vie for power during restructuring and opposing groups look to capitalize on potential weaknesses. While this may be the current treatment, it probably is not the best long term option.

With “homicide associated with criminal enterprise” making up 13-80% of gun homicides, it is clear that something must be done to eradicate gangs. But what? For a minute, let us use our minds and think how else we can manage gangs. We have already seen that dismantling a gang by arresting members for the purpose of rehabilitation does not work. We have tried educating students and creating mentoring programs, and while they may have helped some teens escape gang violence, it obviously has not solved the problem.

Let’s address the risk factors. A quick google search as to the reasoning behind why children join gangs gives us a list of mostly social reasons: camaraderie, peer pressure, boredom, and poverty. The last, is where the secret ingredient to the attack on gangs lies: poverty. “But we’ve created programs to lift people out of poverty, and we still have poverty!” Yes, and they haven’t worked, at least not as well as gang revenue streams. People join gangs because they create a source of income, and often, they can be rather lucrative. Consider that as a young teen, you might get you might get paid for just putting a package behind a rock, or collecting some cash from a stranger, or maybe just hanging out on the corner, ready to sound the alarm when the authorities come rolling through.

So how do we remove the lucrativeness of gang life? Figure out how they get paid, and stop paying them. According to the FBI’s National Gang Report, “street gang activity continues to be oriented toward violent crimes, such as assault, drug trafficking, home invasions, homicide, intimidation, threats, weapons trafficking and sex trafficking.” That’s a pretty ugly list, though if we examine the categories given by the FBI, we realize that almost half of those are not actually violent in and of themselves: drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and sex trafficking. (Yes sex trafficking of those unwilling participants is violent, but the definition of sex trafficking also includes prostitution by willing participants.) And according to the FBI’s graphic of Street Gang Involvement in Criminal Activity, street level drugs sales is the runaway leader with assault a distant second. So the number one source of gang funding comes from street level drug sales, which, in reality, is a victimless crime, as is prostitution and even weapons trafficking.

Another reason law enforcement have such a hard time keeping gangs under control is due to the fact that the community often is uncooperative and this can be for a couple of factors. Certainly there is a fair bit of fear that may come from reporting on a gang that operates in your apartment building. Should it come back that you reported someone to the police, you will have just made a large number of enemies, and in some cases, maybe even signed your death warrant. There is also the fact that relationships between law enforcement officers and local minority communities is not always the best. It is no secret that the War on Drugs has been used to target minority communities; couple this with the fact that police are seen brutalizing and sometimes murdering suspects for non-violent crimes, and it is easy to see why communities become uncooperative: no one wants to be the person that makes a phone call that has an acquaintance murdered by the police, or locked in a cage for 10 years.

When we look at drugs, prostitution and illegal weapon sales, we automatically envision violence: a poorly lit, seedy hotel, with hourly rates and neon lights, a pimp forcing a woman to sell her body for money, briefcases of cash and paraphernalia. And admittedly, none of that is good. But if I were to go to the pharmacy to fill my prescription for Oxycontin, or I went down to the local sporting goods store to pick up a firearm, I am not confronted with this questionable environment, rather, this questionable environment is created out of fear and secrecy. When things are legalized there is no need for secrecy – at least not in the sense of legality – instead legalization opens these markets up to the general populace and in turn, free market regulation, driving the price down. We also must consider that when something becomes legal the risk factor that is associated with sales goes away, bringing the price of the product down even more. And with competition from providers, when John D. and the Bluebells start selling bad crank, users have the ability to go elsewhere, in turn keeping John D. honest, or driving him out of business.

If non-violent crimes are decriminalized and allowed to operate on the free market, this would have a huge impact on gang finances. It would drive the price of the service provided by a gang much lower as legal competition would arise and this would certainly make gang life less desirable. It will also cause gang related violence to drop. Gang violence almost exclusively effects members of the gangs involved, and one of the key reasons for gang violence is territory disputes – i.e. where drugs and guns can be sold, where prostitution happens, etc. When these non-violent crimes are legalized, there is essentially no need for territory: pharmacies and brothels could exist legitimately essentially anywhere. Certainly there may be some backlash from the gangs as they see their finances eroding, but this violence would not be tolerated by the communities and would eventually dissipate. Whereas before, gangs were involved in both violent and non-violent crime, now they are engaged solely in violent crime – extortion, burglary, human trafficking of the forced variety, etc. – suddenly, local communities have a reason not to tolerate gangs as they move from everyday supplier and common-man to aggressive bully.

With these non-violent crimes legalized, less individuals are separated from their families and are allowed to stay and continue to be role models for their children. 70% of gang members come from single parent households in which the father is not present. Surely, some of those father’s are absent of their own volition, but a good percentage of those fathers were likely removed by the State for a non-violent crime.

By ending the War on Drugs and other non-violent crimes, we take away a significant portion of gang income, we turn gangs from community protector and common-man to aggressive bully, and we mitigate one of the biggest gang risk factors by keeping families together. In turn, with smaller, less powerful gangs, we will see a lower level of gang violence and death.

Other References
CDC – National Vital Stastics Report
National Institute of Justice

At It Again!

Agh! Those pesky elitist New York City-ers are at it again! A couple of weeks ago I ragged on Cynthia Nixon, a potential candidate for the New York State gubernatorial position, for wanting to legalize marijuana because the laws around cannabis (and really the entire War on Drugs) are, enforced unequally. (This is not a cannabis issue, but a law enforcement policy issue.) In reality, we should be legalizing substances because it is a personal rights issue, not because one class of people is effected more than another. Essentially, I said Nixon’s ideas of change exist around racism. At the time, it may have seemed a stretch, but lo, she has unabashedly cemented her racist beliefs with her most recent cannabis centered gaff when she claimed that cannabis licenses would be a form of reparations. What! The elitist, self-righteous, progressive left strikes again! This is unfathomable on so many levels.

After mentioning that “black and brown” people are more likely to be arrested for cannabis related crime than white people, she claimed that “We [must] prioritize them in terms of licenses. It’s a form of reparations.” Wait, what? So let’s assume that reparations should even be a thing, giving a particular group of people a license to operate a business over other groups of people based on the color of their skin is a good thing? Isn’t that the exact definition of racism?

Of course, this was also met with a bit of resistance from the black community:

Big Al Sharpton tweeted out: “I’m for legalizing marijuana and I like Cynthia Nixon but putting pot shops in our communities is not reparations. Health care, education !!” (The tweet in itself is, in fact, contradictory – “Let’s legalize it, but don’t put those pot shops in our communities.” But shhhh, don’t tell Al.)

Black Lives Matter also demanded an apology, saying that Nixon presented “harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as drug users and dealers.” Again, maybe a stretch that she called African-Americans drug users and dealers, but she did group a whole class of people, and we all know that’s a big no-no.

Of course, the fodder goes on. But folks, this is what happens when we start using emotions to dictate policy, when we put facts aside and make decisions using feelings. Eventually, the progressive left will eat itself in a fit of statements like we’ve seen from Big Al and Nixon, all we can do is hope they don’t do too much damage before it all goes down in a fiery mess. Because, in reality, the progressive left cannot exist without extreme segregation.