- The U.S. criminal justice system is fatally flawed. It is a broken machine that neither protects the innocent nor does it bring the guilty to justice in a way an even-handed justice system is supposed to do.
There are 2.3 million people behind bars in America, the largest prison population anywhere seen in the world. No country in the history of humanity has locked up that many of its citizens at any given time as the United States. Even though the U.S. has only 5% of the world's population, it has 25% of the prison population of the world. America's incarceration rate is the highest it's ever been in its own history as well.
The U.S. criminal justice system is plagued with racial disparities. African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate of nearly 6 times the rate of whites. One in three black men can expect to see inside a prison at some time in their lives as opposed to only 6% of whites. That's despite the fact that African Americans make up only 12.6% of the entire U.S. population.
But does the United States really have that many criminals? Are racial minorities really that unruly to be disproportionally convicted, incarcerated, and executed?
A new study gives you just a glimpse of how people fall victim to U.S. criminal justice system. The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have assembled a new National Registry of Exonerations-- the most complete such database ever complied-claiming that more than 2,000 people who were convicted of serious crimes were exonerated over the past 23 years. 101 prisoners had been on death row over murder charges and were later acquitted. That means many innocent people could have been easily executed for crimes they did not commit. Ten were found innocent after their death. Hundreds more had been sentenced to life in prison but were later exonerated.
"The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis... Most false convictions never see the light of the day," said professors of law Samuel Gross and Michael Shaffer, the authors of the study. Professor Gross believes that the exonerations are just "the tip of an iceberg." Most falsely convicted suspects die in prison burying with them the truth about their sentences.
These facts, shocking as they are, represent only a fraction of what is wrong with the ultra-punitive legal and prison system of America. The authors of the study had focused on serious crimes such as murder and rape. But what about those who are thrown in jail over less serious crimes? Like the thousands of people who are busted every day over drug charges, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, joyriding and other misdemeanors?
Despite decreases in crime rates, the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled since the 1970s, largely due to the failed "war on drugs," harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and severe anti-crime policies manipulated for political and pecuniary purposes. As a result the prison industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. It has lured thousands of business moguls into an industry whose whole foundation is based on the misery of others, a booming business whose investors are more than happy to make a profit at the expense of others' freedom. Accordingly, privately-run for-profit prison companies have sprung up in large numbers from coast to coast over the past decade preying on the most vulnerable: the blacks, the Hispanics, the poor, the homeless, the defenseless, and the socially and culturally deprived.
Many of those inmates have to work for nickels and dimes while in prison. They are unable to strike. They are never late for work. They will never call in sick. Their employers do not have to pay for unemployment insurance. And if they are ever unhappy about their work conditions, they can be locked up in cells. Their condition pretty much calls to mind the stories of slaves toiling away on America's plantation fields back in the early days of capitalism while their masters were busy lining their own pockets.
Two of the largest and the most notorious private employers of these modern day slaves, Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) grew at a breakneck speed over the last decade, expanding both their inmate population and their political clout.
Such profiteers of misery spend exorbitant amount of money lobbying for stricter criminal laws just to sustain a steady flow of inmates, and the federal funding they bring along, not to mention the cheap labor they provide. Over the past decade, the CCA, the country's largest owner and operator of for-profit prisons, has spent over $17 million lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies for harsher criminal laws and longer prison sentences, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the effect of money on U.S. politics.
The CCA has recently reached out to 48 states in America with a $250 million plan to buy up and manage their penitentiaries. But in return, the states have to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing an occupancy rate of at least %90.
The program has aroused the ire of many human rights groups as it compels state officials to round up more and more people and hand down harsher sentences just to meet the terms of the contract.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a broad coalition of 60 policy and religious groups urged states to reject the proposal condemning it as "an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse and decreased public safety." The CCA, however, defended the plan as an "investment initiative" and an "additional option" to cut costs for cash-strapped states to consider.
While proponents of private prison industry have long touted cost savings, several studies have found no significant reduction in cost.
As mass incarceration morally and financially bankrupts America, private prisons reap huge benefits. Corrections Corporation's revenues have expanded more than fivefold since the mid-1990s (when a new wave of crackdown on undocumented immigrants and the so-called war on drugs started to sweep across the United States). Damon Hininger, its president and CEO, received more than $3.5 million in executive compensation last year alone.
The problem does not end there though. There seems to be a lack of will in the higher-ups to rein in this ever-expanding profiteering industry. Mind you, in some cases they are even part of the problem.
The director of U.S. Marshals Service, Stacia Hylton, has strong ties to the private prison industry. She had been a consultant for the GEO Group. She awarded contracts worth up to $88 million for the company. In 2010, Hylton started a private prison consulting firm, called Hylton Kirk and Associates, while still working at the Department of Justice. All that background did not stop President Obama from appointing Hylton to her new post as the director of Marshal Services in 2010. She now oversees government contracts with private prison companies.
The prison industrial complex is on the march and as Eric Lotke --American philosopher and attorney who has represented Corrections Corporation of America inmates in a ground-breaking class action lawsuit -- points out in his book 2044, "The problem isn't Big Brother. It's Big Brother, Inc."