As a nation, we spend more than $80 billion annually to incarcerate 2.2 million people in facilities whose deplorable conditions, subpar treatment services, and ineffective programs engender recidivism. Still, communities spend yet another $3 billion to support them. But the social costs of our failing criminal legal system, such as the harm done to people, families, and communities, are far higher. And these costs are not distributed evenly—their burden is carried largely by those we already detrimentally marginalize: low-income and minority communities.
However, this injustice has produced windfalls for some. Over the past few decades, private, public, and illicit actors have found various ways to financially exploit our criminal legal system and those it touches, victims and prisoners alike. From bail to reentry, these actors have commercialized each segment of our punishment continuum and built an economy that depends on stripping people of their freedom. In doing so, they have converted the justice-involved and their communities into cash machines, capitalizing on crime to create a legal form of human trafficking that targets those our social structures have failed.
Our system is now laden with public, private, and illicit actors whose financial incentives conflict with the criminal justice goals of reducing crime and incarceration. Whether it’s private prison executives cutting service quality to pad their profit margins or labor unions fighting prison closures to protect rural jobs, in the end lives are being destroyed, families torn apart, and communities decimated for financial gain. Motivated to help expand the criminal legal system and increase government spending rather than contract the system and cut their share of the payouts, these actors purchase power through legislative lobbying and campaign financing and wield it to protect the legal structures that support their growth.
These structures have become an invisible, but fortified barrier to building a criminal legal system that is truly rooted in justice. In fact, the intentional obfuscation of the power these actors wield allows for the legitimization of the legal, political, and social frameworks they shape that artificially celebrate incremental criminal justice reform to avoid radical change. Thus, while well-meaning reformers collect small wins in their struggle to decriminalize drugs, promote alternatives to incarceration, or reduce sentences, their efforts are thwarted by the oft-ignored imbalance of economic and political power between affected communities and those who profit from their victimization, criminalization, and incarceration.
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