The Tea Party is right. Our freedom is being stripped away. However, the threats to our liberty are not coming from gun laws. They aren’t coming from tax laws. In many cases, they aren’t even coming from the government. The threats to our freedom are coming from the prison industrial complex, and for nearly 2/3rds of American jail inmates, their crimes have not yet been proven.
A recent study by the Pretrial Justice Institute has found that 61% of people sitting in jail are still awaiting trial. Only 39% are serving actual sentences. As recently as 1996, that number was about evenly divided.
According to the study, the shift has been caused by the way the accused are allowed to post bail. Courts are required, by law, to strike a balance between the safety of society and providing the least financially restrictive way possible for an accused felon to await trial while maintaining some level of freedom. The least restrictive way, of course, would be to release the accused without financial conditions. The most restrictive way is with secured money bonds, which require assets. In 1990, money bonds were required of 53% of felony suspects. Today, it’s 70%.
To put it more simply, those with money, regardless of the severity of the accused crime, are less likely to be sitting in jail than those without money. Not coincidentally, those who are unable to post bond are also most likely to be convicted.
It’s no secret that our court systems, both civil and criminal, favor the white and the wealthy. African-Americans are arrested more. They are convicted more and they are less likely to be released on parole. The wealthy have better lawyers. The poor often become victims to the system.
Since the 1970s, there has been an inverse correlation between crime and the number of prisoners. Crime is down while the number of inmates has risen dramatically. Sentences are also longer. The fact that criminals are sitting in prison certainly has an impact on the shrinking crime rate, but other theories have also been floated, including demographics and even the legalization of abortion (the theory is that unwanted and poverty stricken children are more likely to turn to a life of crime).
However, many sitting in jails and prisons are of absolutely no threat to society. Most federal prisoners and 21% of state prisoners are there for drug charges. A rising number of inmates are in there for simply being undocumented immigrants.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even higher than Russia, China and Iran, countries that Americans often hold up as being human rights abusers. It should stand to reason that by locking up more criminals, we’d have the lowest crime rate. We don’t. In fact, we have the 8th highest crime rate in the world.
In comes the private prison industry. Since 1990, the number of prisoners housed in private prisons has risen a whopping 1600%. While government run prisons have no incentive to fill cells, like a Kafkaesque Holiday Inn, private prison owners are paid for filling beds.
If you think for a moment that laws like Arizona’s ‘Papers Please’ are about curbing immigration, you’d be wrong. Immigrants, undocumented and sometimes documented, are a cash cow for the private prison system. So, too, are in increasing number of debtors. It’s pretty easy to see how if someone is not able to pay a debt, they would be less likely to be able to bail themselves out of jail.
To read more on private prisons, please read, Your Freedom: Sold To The Highest Bidder.
In today’s political climate, “freedom” and “liberty” are popular buzzwords, but it’s rare that the actual source of our loss of freedom and liberty are addressed. The prison industrial complex is a largely ignored, but growing part of our society. As long as someone is financially incentivized to take away our freedom, you can be assured they will do everything in their great power to do just that.