Privatization and the Law and Economics of Political Advocacy, Part 6:

This post continues my series on my upcoming Stanford Law Review paper on Privatization and the Law and Economics of Political Advocacy (see here for the technical paper). In my last post, I wrote:

In brief, there is a lot of hard evidence of pro-incarceration advocacy by public corrections officers’ unions (though a small part of union advocacy also cuts the other way). (There is also hard evidence that most Departments of Corrections advocate the other way—in favor of alternatives to incarceration.) But there is virtually no hard evidence of private-sector pro-incarceration advocacy. This may simply mean that the private sector advocates secretly. But, in light of the theory, it is more plausible that the private sector simply free-rides, saving its political advocacy for policy areas where the public good aspect is less severe—pro-privatization advocacy.

This post documents that assertion. For a more footnoted version—there's a limit to how much I can link to here—consult the paper.

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In 1987, E.S. Savas, a supporter of privatization, dismissed the claim that private firms advocate incarceration by noting that “[i]f this argument was sound . . . prison officials, guards, and their unions presumably would act in the same manner for the same reasons. This, however, is not the case.”

Whether this was true even back then is questionable. At one time, corrections officials were politically aligned with liberal groups, but by the 1970s correctional unions were already advocating incarceration.

This activism continues today. The most active public corrections officers’ union in advocating incarceration is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). It gives twice as much in political contributions as the California Teachers Association, though it’s only one-tenth the size; only the California Medical Association gives more in the state. CCPOA spends over $7.5 million per year on political activities. It contributes to political parties, political events, and debates; it gives money directly to candidates; it hires lobbyists, public relations firms, and polling groups.

Many of its contributions are impossible to trace back to any particular agenda item: Since the union also opposes privatization, favors higher wages, and has positions on other issues, it’s just as plausible that the contributions were made for those other purposes.

But many of its contributions are directly pro-incarceration. It gave over $100,000 to California’s Three Strikes initiative, Proposition 184 in 1994, making it the second-largest contributor. It gave at least $75,000 to the opponents of Proposition 36, the 2000 initiative that replaced incarceration with substance abuse treatment for certain nonviolent offenders. From 1998 to 2000 it gave over $120,000 to crime victims’ groups, who present a more sympathetic face to the public in their pro-incarceration advocacy. It spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, the 2004 initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence under the Three Strikes law. And in 2005, it killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to “reduce the prison population by as much as 20,000, mainly through a program that diverted parole violators into rehabilitation efforts: drug programs, halfway houses and home detention.”

CCPOA doesn’t always favor increasing incarceration, but the bulk of its advocacy has been in this direction. Dan Pens has quoted CCPOA member Lt. Kevin Peters as saying:

You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are opportunities for the people who are [already] correction staff, and opportunities for the general public to become correctional officers. We’ve gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and with “Three Strikes” and the overcrowding we’re going to experience with that, we’re going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees.

This isn’t just a story about California. Though corrections officers’ unions outside of California are nowhere near as active as the CCPOA, many of them do advocate incarceration. (As I note below, everything is bigger in California: While private prison firms make political contributions nationwide, they, too, spend more in California.) The correctional wing of Florida’s police-and-corrections union has endorsed candidates for being tough on crime. The Michigan corrections officers’ union has opposed boot camp proposals. The New York City corrections officers’ union endorsed Gov. Pataki because he ended parole for violent felons. The New York State corrections officers’ union is said to have stymied efforts to overhaul mandatory minimum sentences. And the Rhode Island corrections officers’ union endorsed a candidate for his prosecutorial record and position in favor of tougher criminal penalties. (I am not considering the more usual demands for tougher penalties for criminals who commit crimes while in prison—a particularly salient issue for corrections officers, who are often victims of such crimes.)

Some corrections officers’ unions are combined with police unions, for instance in Florida or New Jersey. So except where (as in Florida) the corrections officers’ wing has been independently politically involved, any of these unions’ advocacy can’t be traced directly to corrections officers.

In some states, corrections officers are also affiliated with AFSCME, the general public employees’ union; AFSCME Corrections United represents 60,000 corrections officers and 23,000 corrections employees nationwide. It’s plausible that corrections officers’ concerns would be swamped by the potentially contrary concerns of public employees as a whole (who tend to be fairly liberal). And, indeed, the evidence that AFSCME has advocated incarceration is weak. AFSCME has advocated alternatives to incarceration, and the national organization has advocated legalizing medical marijuana (though of course this would only account for a tiny proportion of crime). The Oklahoma public employees’ union—also a general union—has also advocated alternatives to incarceration.

So much for public corrections officers' unions. Now let's go on to private prison firms.