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. We spend another $100 billion on the courts and police who fill their beds. 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 communities of color.
But, adding insult to injury, 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 probation and construction to commissary, these actors have commercialized each segment of our punishment continuum and built an industry that depends on stripping people of their liberties. 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. Compensated based on volume, these actors are motivated to help expand the criminal legal system and increase government spending rather than contract the system and cut their share of the payouts. To protect their financial interests, they purchase power through legislative lobbying and campaign financing and wield it to protect the legal structures that support their growth.
These efforts create an invisible, but fortified barrier to building a criminal legal system that is truly rooted in justice. Thus, while well-meaning reformers 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. Recognizing the intentional obfuscation and abuse of this power, we must reject the perceived legitimacy of the legal, political, and social frameworks these actors shape that artificially celebrate incremental criminal justice reform to avoid radical change.