In the New York Times, December 27, Brent Staples explains – Why Some Politicians Need Their Prisons to Stay Full – and outlines how public spending can clearly be a tool for essential job creation underpinning regional development. The problem is that it seems the Americans haven’t quite got it right.
Staples introduces us to the trend in the US since the 1970’s towards mandatory sentencing which has seen their prison population increase tenfold. Staples says this has created “a large and growing felon class – now 13 million strong – that remains locked out of the mainstream and prone to recidivism. Trailing behind the legions of felons are children who grow up visiting their parents behind bars and thinking prison life is perfectly normal. Meanwhile, the cost of building and running prisons has pushed many states near bankruptcy – and forced them to choose between building jails and schools.”
Now it seems that despite evidence that the draconian policies have not reduced the crime rate or curbed the drug trade it is not an easy matter to reverse the policy. Staples says that the “business of building and running the jailhouse has become a mammoth industry with powerful constituencies that favor the status quo. Prison-based money and political power have distorted the legislative landscape in ways that will be difficult to undo. These problems are on vivid display in New York, which started mass imprisonment when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller persuaded the Legislature to pass the toughest drug laws in the nation at the start of an ill-starred ‘war on drugs’, 30 years ago …Nearly all of the prisoners ended up in upstate New York, where failing farms and hollowed-out cities offered a lot of room for building. Politicians in these sparsely populated districts caught on quickly and began to lobby to have the new prisons located in their communities. As a result, nearly 30 percent of the people who were counted as moving into upstate New York during the 1990’s were prison inmates.”
The issue is that the prisons are good for job creation in regions that are in decline and now the economies in those areas are dependent on the wages and other expenditures associated with the prison system. Make no mistake – this is public spending which has boosted local economies where the private sector could not. But what would the landscape look like had the public boosted education, research, environmental services, health and we could go on.
Interestingly, by curbing the population decline in regional areas the public injections have “helped to save political careers … [which] … were in danger of having to be merged because of shrinking populations.” While inmates are not permitted to vote in “48 of 50 states – including New York … disenfranchised prisoners are included in the population counts that become the basis for drawing legislative districts.”
Staples says that “it”s hard to escape the fact that bulging prisons are good for their districts. The advantages extend beyond jobs and political gerrymandering. By counting unemployed inmates as residents, the prison counties lower their per capita incomes – and increase the portion they get of federal funds for the poor. This results in a transfer of federal cash from places that can”t afford to lose it to places that don”t deserve it.”
So this is regional development policy US-style. In Australia, we should use public spending to achieve similar employment growth in our declining areas but perhaps we might depart from the US obsession with prisons.