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'That's Quite a Con Game!': The Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Swindle
Body cameras, specialty courts, electronic monitoring—we explore how purported "reforms" fuel America's mass incarceration crisis.
News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast that melds hard-hitting journalism with hip-hop to inform, educate, and inspire. Our latest episode examines how bipartisan criminal justice reform actually perpetuates the cycle of incarceration and carceral control.
As one of our guests remarks: “That’s quite a con game!”
Long-time listeners of News Beat likely remember an episode we produced about electronic monitoring and the way in which these devices—developed in large part by the private prison industry—actually expands incarceration. This despite dubious claims from legislators that investments in electronic monitoring devices are part of a larger effort to “decarcerate.” What actually happens is incarcerated people are ostensibly transferred back into society where they’re monitored 24/7 and forced to live under highly restrictive conditions, with a monitor strapped around their ankles at all times. Violations for even minor infractions can result in someone returning to prison.
As we reported: “The electronic monitor, which is affixed to someone’s ankle, contains GPS technology, and alerts authorities if it’s tampered with, [make] even the most mundane human interactions uncomfortable.”
The episode we’re dropping today similarly lifts the veil on the so-called bipartisan reform industry. It was inspired by the new book “Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform,” by the writer and activist Kay Whitlock and St. Catherine University sociology professor Nancy A. Heitzeg.
Why We Covered This Topic
For the last decade, activists, lawmakers, and influential organizations have prioritized criminal justice reform to address America’s mass incarceration crisis. The United States, as you may know, is home to more than 2.3 million incarcerated people. However, that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story of our carceral system, which also includes millions under parole and probation, the 10 million people who cycle in and out of jail each year, and the nearly half million innocent incarcerated people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial.
Yes, America’s carceral regime is massive and is in dire need of reform. Well-intended people often support many of these efforts, but most are not familiar with the organizations pushing such changes, nor the vast amounts of money financing them.
As “Carceral Con” documents, many of the reforms we see today fail to address the systemic and structural problems that fuel incarceration. And that includes decades of cuts to social programs—while budgets for police and corrections swelled—and ever-widening income inequality.
From the book:
“The Institute for Policy Studies examined a widening divide from 1988 to 2016: while the wealth for median white households was rising that of Black households was plummeting. The same period also saw enormous and growing concentration of wealth at the top. The number of households with wealth of $10 million or more ‘skyrocketed by 856 percent,’ and the Forbes 400 richest plutocrats alone held more wealth than all Black households plus one-quarter of Latinx households. Single Black and Latinx mothers and their children bear the brunt of wealth inequality. While Indigenous peoples are seldom represented in studies of wealth inequality, 2018 data from the US Census confirms that at least one-quarter of Indigenous households are impoverished, a higher percentage than other racial and ethnic groups. But since the federal poverty line is widely recognized as underestimating economic precarity, the real measure of severe economic hardship among Indigenous peoples is undoubtedly significantly higher.
“With the entrenchment of neoliberalism in the late twentieth century, the preferred bipartisan approaches to creating public safety and controlling crime were expanded criminalization, policing, and punishment. Austerity regimes—tax cuts for the wealthy; a rise in crushing inequality; shrinking governmental budgets for social programming; and corresponding divestments from public resources such as education, housing, health care, anti-poverty and employment programs, and more—are accompanied by greater reliance on systems of carceral control.”
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
The United States witnessed a massive rise in the carceral state throughout the last half century. There are more than 10 million jail admissions each year, and more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in prison or jails—including more than 400,000 who are innocent but awaiting trial.
It costs about $180 billion each year to operate the criminal legal system, with the bulk of taxpayer dollars going toward corrections, policing, and the courts system. Meanwhile, neoliberal policies have led to a reduction in social programs at the same time income inequality widened.
Various bipartisan so-called “reforms” do the opposite of what’s being sold to the public. Speciality courts, for example, allow people to avoid criminal charges by placing them into community supervision. Before these courts came into existence, people involved in such cases would historically be diverted away from the criminal legal system altogether, our guests argue.
Another popular reform are body cameras. While viewed as necessary tools to increase transparency in policing, adoption of these devices means more money for companies that profit off of the criminal legal system. There are concerns about body cameras being used to expand the state’s already outsized surveillance apparatus, and whether they have any impact on police behavior or reducing police violence, whatsoever.
Bipartisan reforms fail to address systemic issues that lead to people getting swept up in the criminal legal system in the first place, such as poverty, race, and gender.
Here’s the argument the authors make in the book:
“Changes in federal sentencing policy will barely dent incarceration rates, as the majority of prisoners are held at the state level or in local jails. Decriminalizing drugs, while important, will address only 20 percent of the overall prison population, and less than that if sentencing changes do not apply retroactively. Closing private prisons will only impact 8 percent of the prison population, with the likelihood that these prisoners would be transferred to publicly funded institutions rather than released. Community corrections such as probation and parole theoretically offer an alternative to prison but have ended up as feeders since revocations for technical violations serve as an engine for imprisonment.”
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
Kay Whitlock, a writer and activist whose work focuses on structural violence and inequality. Whitlock is also the co-author of “Queer [In]Justice” and “Considering Hate.”
“We see how criminalization arises out of an intrinsically racist and economically violent system. So we can't just tweak the system and imagine that those structural factors are going to change. One of the big challenges in dismantling some of the structures that exist is to begin to shift public resources to the public good for things like housing, healthcare, public education, environmental integrity and protection, jobs—all of those kinds of things.”
Nancy A. Heitzeg, a professor of sociology at St. Catherine University. She is also the author of “The School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
“One of the key pieces of many so-called reforms, especially those that claim that they're saving taxpayer money or are interested in justice reinvestment is that money is almost always poured back into the system. It's like this continuous feedback loop.”
Pick up the book that inspired this episode: “Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform,” available on Bookshop.org.
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Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Chris Twarowski
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