PA Judges Got Cash to Lock Up Teens, Revealed a Broken Justice System

Last month, two Pennsylvania judges pled guilty to accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately-operated detention centers. One judge secured the contracts for the firms and the other judge kept the centers filled by sentencing over 5,000 teens, many for first-time offenses, since the scheme started in 2003.

One high school student was sentenced to three months for mocking her assistant principal on a spoof MySpace page. She was handcuffed and taken away as her parents watched. "I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare," said the 17-year old.

Another teen, who had never been in trouble before, was sentenced to 90 days for a typical boyhood fight that resulted in another boy getting a black eye. His mom, who had been told to expect her son's wrist being slapped at sentencing, recounted the scene: "It's horrible to have your child taken way in shackles right in front of you when you think you're going home with him."

The sentencing judge, as part of the secret "placement guarantee agreement," sent hundreds of teenagers like these to detention facilities for minor and often questionable offenses.

The U.S. attorney did drop a bribery investigation into the two private detention companies, presumably agreeing with the companies' claims that the Judges demanded the money and they felt they had no choice but to fork it over.

But whether it was bribery or extortion is irrelevant.

The real problem is that the structure of private detention and prison contracting creates incentives and behaviors that poison our system of criminal justice. Per Diem contracts that are the norm in the prison industry mean that private contractors -- most politically tied-in -- generate more revenue when more teens are detained or more adults incarcerated.

A juvenile justice system with its eyes on the right prize should focus on putting teenagers on the right path in those crucial years when a few mistakes can lead to a life on the edge of society. In some cases, a few days, or even a few months, of detention could be just the wake-up call a teenager needs. But the right response could also be community service, taking away a driver's license, probation, counseling, or finding a young person a mentor.

Beyond the kind of gross corruption of the PA case, the poison in the system manifests itself in multiple ways.

The built-in incentives in these kinds of prison contracts also leads to a more subtle upgrading of sentences in order to keep balance sheets and public budgets stable. In an audit of two privately operated medium-security Florida prisons, 53 percent of the inmates had been sentenced to minimum-security prisons, but contract minimums motivated the state to make sure the beds of private companies were filled.

The Prison industry also flexes its growing political muscle to increase the number of people sent to -- and kept in -- prison. Lobbying dollars and campaign contributions are used to push "tougher" laws such as "three strikes", mandatory minimum sentencin, and "truth in sentencing" -- all of which increase the duration of sentences. And they support conservative think tanks such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to be the "independent" voice advocating tougher sentencing policies throughout the United States. According to the Institute for Money in State Politics, private prison companies spend far more money lobbying in states with the toughest sentencing laws, those that are most likely to fill prison beds.

And the payoff to the industry is significant. A Wall Street Journal headline last November said it all: "Larger Inmate Population is a Boon to Private Prisons." Profits for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group have steadily increased, even as most other industries suffer. CCA's 2008 fourth quarter profits jumped 16 percent due to increased per diem rates and a growing prison population. CCA and Geo are both in the middle of an expansion boom, with 29 new or expanded prisons completed or in the process of being completed between 2008 and 2010.

The use of private contractors and 'market mechanisms' like pay-for-performance contracts allows the private sector's profit imperative to infect the public system of criminal justice. There couldn't be a clearer case where public purpose is driven off the rails by private actors. After all, any new program that looks to other, more creative approaches to reducing crime and recidivism would produce cost savings that would hurt these companies' bottom lines. Tragically, that means there's an industry threatened by better, more just policies and it's well-positioned to prevent them from being enacted.


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